Labour leader Andrew Little's personal storm in the High Court video

Lani Hagaman - the jury dismissed her claims against Little.
Kevin Stent

Lani Hagaman - the jury dismissed her claims against Little.

ANALYSIS: While New Zealand was being lashed by heavy rain and high winds last week, Andrew Little was weathering his own personal storm in Wellington's High Court.

The aftermath of Cyclone Debbie diverted public attention away from the Labour leader's defamation trial, one small mercy for Little in what was a testing five days of hearings.

When the verdict was finally delivered, Little was clearly relieved even if it took some time for the Labour camp and media to work through exactly what the verdict meant.

Andrew Little on the stand in the Wellington High Court

Andrew Little on the stand in the Wellington High Court

After almost two full days of deliberations, the nine men and three women were hung on a majority of claims brought by Scenic Hotel Group founder Earl Hagaman, but cleared Little of defaming Lani Hagaman.

READ MORE: 
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At issue was whether Little had defamed the Hagamans by linking a $100,000 donation Earl made to the National Party during the 2014 election with a contract their Scenic Hotel Group won a month later to manage the Matavai resort in Niue, which receives government funding.

NZN VIDEO

Andrew Little reacts to court decision

With Earl too ill to attend - battling critical anaemia and having suffered a number of falls, the court was told the 91-year-old had only weeks to live - it was his wife Lani who took the stand to try and clear the couple's names.

The petite, blonde woman in hoop earrings - 40 years Earl's junior - joked she was his fifth wife but the longest "by a wide margin".

She gave no quarter during cross-examination, arguing with Little's lawyer John Tizard and Justice Karen Clark over whether she should answer a question about bankrupting the Labour leader.

NZN VIDEO

Lani Hagaman speaking outside Wellington High Court after Labour leader Andrew Little was partly cleared of defamation.

However, there were some signs of the toll Little's words had taken, when her voice cracked as she spoke about Earl's right to "die with dignity".

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"My husband has a matter of weeks to live and I'm sitting in Wellington fighting a battle I should not have to fight at all...and all it would have taken was an apology."

Little was present during most of the trial, sitting quietly with his media and research team in the public gallery and joking occasionally with media.

Taking the stand on a grey, rainy Wednesday, his case largely rested on his duty as an Opposition leader to hold the Government to account and shine a light on its actions.

"I can't be deterred or dissuaded from my moral obligation to hold the Government to account," he insisted. 

At times speaking so indistinctly the judge asked him to move closer to the microphone - "the ones at Parliament pick up everything", he said - Little said he had made genuine attempts to make things right with the Hagamans, at one point making a direct apology to Lani.

However, it was not long until the Hagamans' lawyer, Richard Fowler QC forced him to U-turn on a claim the Hagamans had never made serious negotiations, after Fowler produced a legal letter from last December showing they had provided the template for an apology.

Little was grilled over his lack of fact-checking and dropping the couple "into the full glare of media publicity", while previous tangles with private citizens came up.

A disagreement between Little and tax expert John Shewan, and his subsequent retraction without apology made on the Saturday evening before an All Blacks game, was brought up by Fowler as a sign that he had difficulty saying sorry.

Little kept on a brave face, quipping he'd faced worse in Parliament, but it was undoubtedly a bruising hour or two.

While the jury were urged to discard their political beliefs when considering the case, the affiliations of the Hagamans and Little were very much on the table.

Lani Hagaman said her husband was not aligned to any one political party, having donated to Labour, ACT and NZ First over the years.

However, Little said Hagaman was "known for expressing right-wing views" in letters to Labour MPs, while Tizard read out a letter from Earl to John Key in which he berated his predecessor Helen Clark.

Little also countered that Foreign Minister Murray McCully's denial of any impropriety made him more likely, not less, to suspect something was amiss.

National Party president Peter Goodfellow also appeared as a witness, describing a hour-long meeting with the Hagamans at their Christchurch home in which he received the $100,000 cheque after a chat covering the election campaign and the rise of Kim Dotcom.

MONEY ON THEIR MIND

Unsurprisingly, money was a frequent topic of conversation in a trial centred on a $100,000 donation, with rich-lister plaintiffs worth $190 million and seeking a maximum of $2.3m in damages from Little.

Little raised concerns about "excessive" legal costs of over $200,000 being claimed by the Hagamans, including more than $17,000 for their PR firm.

He spoke of securing a $100,000 loan against his house following discussions with his wife, "the most I could offer" in an attempted settlement rejected by the Hagamans.

Fowler said there was "no question the Hagamans are wealthy people", but that did not mean they should be out of pocket for Little's claims, while also referring to more than $10m of charitable donations.

CRUEL, OR CIVIC DUTY?

While the two parties kept a firm distance in the public gallery - Little occupying the left wing of seating, Lani the right - there was a greater sense of amicability between their lawyers, who shared page references and chuckles during the trial.

The tall, lithe Fowler argued Little had been "unfair, cruel and cynical" to the Hagamans, shooting from the hip without doing any fact checking and defaming an innocent businessman now on his deathbed.

​"As he is about to leave this world, this horrible thing has happened to him - this is hanging over his head while he literally is in the departure lounge."

Tizard, a more avuncular presence, contended Little was merely doing his civic duty in holding the Government to account and raising questions worthy of independent scrutiny.

"You will make what you will of his evidence, but I suggest to you you may well conclude if anything Mr Little was overly upright in what he saw as his responsibility as leader of the opposition."

STORM PASSES FOR LITTLE

After over six hours of deliberations on Friday, Justice Karen Clark sent the jury away for the weekend.

Another six hours on Monday, and the jury foreman rapped on the court door to let the judge know they could not reach a unanimous decision.

Instructed to instead reach a majority verdict if possible, it took less than an hour for news of an impending decision, with the court filling with Labour staffers, legal beagles and well-known defamee Jordan Williams.

Looks of puzzlement abounded on the media benches in the wake of the verdict, and it took a detailed explanation from Tizard to clarify what the dozens of "yes/no" answers from the jury foreman meant.

Little knew what it meant though: he was relieved and cheerful at a media conference, cracking that he "would've probably been busking on the bottom of Lambton Quay" if he had lost the case.
 
Some clouds remain on the horizon, in the form of a possible retrial over the hung decisions - speaking outside court, Lani told reporters "I'm sure you'll hear from me".
 
However, it was clear the worst had passed for the Labour leader - something he may not have been entirely confident in forecasting last week.

 - Stuff

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