Book work results in legal action

A Dunedin author's attempt to write a book about events at Rai Valley Area School has resulted in a $1.8 million defamation action.

Former principal Loretta "Muff" Newton is the plaintiff in an action lodged with the High Court on November 1 against Sue Dunn, who has been working on the book since March last year.

There were deep divisions in the school and the Rai Valley community for several years before Ms Newton resigned in November 2011 after extended sick leave.

The new principal, Angela Sloane, took up the job at the start of term three in July last year. She was appointed by commissioner Janet Kelly. The school had been governed by a commissioner since March 2011, after then education minister Anne Tolley stepped in.

Ms Dunn became interested in the story after meeting one of the central figures, Faye Leov, at a painting course in Queenstown.

The school's problems came to a head after Mrs Leov was sacked as chief librarian, with the board eventually having to make a humiliating public apology to her.

Ms Dunn began interviewing people in the Rai community, and last September she sent a letter asking for more information to residents and members of many official organisations. She also sent it to Ms Newton.

The letter is the subject of the defamation claim. Ms Dunn told the Nelson Mail yesterday there were three parts to the claim, totalling $1.8m.

She said she was unable to go into the details of the letter. She was not a wealthy person, and already faced significant legal costs, but was determined that the book, which had the working title A Significant Harm - Voices from the Rai, would be published.

Its most important element was the collection of personal narratives to put a human face on the cost of what had happened to the school and the community, she said. It would also call into question the actions of individuals and organisations who, "knowing how serious this was, would still not step up to protect the victims".

Her inquiries would extend to ministerial level, she said.

Ms Dunn advertises herself as a ghostwriter. She said she had written five books for prominent New Zealanders, and had helped others with self-published autobiographies. She also runs writing courses.

She said she hoped the Rai Valley book would be published in July or August.

The High Court at Blenheim confirmed that the statement of claim had been lodged, and said there would be a first teleconference between the parties and an associate judge next Thursday.

The Nelson Mail