Meet the man who's cost a council $350,000

LANE NICHOLS
Last updated 05:00 30/06/2012
Benjamin Easton
ANDREW GORRIE/Fairfax NZ

PRICE OF PROTEST: Benjamin Easton's continuing legal battles against the council have cost ratepayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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Wellington ratepayers have spent more than $350,000 defending doomed legal action by serial protester Benjamin Easton, sparking a rare bid to declare him a vexatious litigant.

Council lawyers have written to the solicitor-general trying to block the self-proclaimed "unemployed political busker" from filing endless court proceedings and appeals.

Mr Easton, 52, is a voracious litigant who has taken many court cases against the council over its Manners Mall bus route. He was nearly Tasered for wielding a sledgehammer during a 2010 central city protest.

The social justice campaigner was also the central figure in a protracted anti-capitalist Occupy Wellington demonstration in Civic Square, and more recently he barricaded himself in a Housing New Zealand apartment complex to protest against the forced eviction of tenants.

The move to block him from the courts is considered a "drastic restriction of civil rights" by the Law Commission and "measure of last resort".

Only seven other people have been declared vexatious litigants since 1965.

But the council says its bid is justified.

Figures made public under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act reveal that ratepayers forked out $319,932 on legal action involving Mr Easton in 2009 and 2010 alone, with thousands more going on GST and expert witnesses.

The spending related to multiple court cases trying to overturn the bus route decision, tenancy tribunal hearings after his eviction from a council flat, and Occupy Wellington legal expenses.

No attempt had been made to recoup the money because "such a step was assessed as futile given the circumstances".

A letter to Crown Law from council lawyers Phillips Fox says the council has been subjected to a continuous stream of litigation from Mr Easton and aligned group The City is Ours. His pleadings were often incomprehensible with "no realistic prospect of success", the letter says.

A judge had described his arguments as "convoluted, long-winded, tortuous and circuitous". He refused to accept adverse decisions, simply filing new appeals with higher authorities after each successive loss.

Although the council was a main target, other defendants drawn into his many proceedings included Radio New Zealand, the Broadcasting Standards Authority, the Human Rights Commission, the Broadcasting Commission and Bank of New Zealand.

He had also threatened proceedings against the New Zealand Fire Service and Environment Court, and threatened judicial complaints against several judges.

"The council is becoming increasingly concerned that the ratepayers of Wellington are funding the defence of Mr Easton's persistent and repetitive litigation.

"This is despite the fact that his proceedings have been consistently found to be without merit."

Although seeking to restrict a citizen's right to petition the courts should not be undertaken lightly, the council believed it was an appropriate case to prevent his vexatious litigation against ratepayers and other parties.

A Crown Law spokeswoman said the office was keeping a watching brief on Mr Easton and his many court proceedings, which included action this week before the Supreme Court.

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If satisfied he had met the threshold, Crown Law would make an application to the High Court under the Judicature Act on behalf of the attorney-general to prevent him bringing civil proceedings without the prior approval of a judge.

Mr Easton told The Dominion Post he would challenge any such application and embarrass the council.

"I'm going to slaughter them because they're cheats."

He defended his right to bring matters of public interest before the courts, but dismissed the justice system as biased and "corrupt".

"I'm an untrained, uneducated litigant and they don't want that kind of litigant beating their top lawyers. It's really easy to point the finger at me and forget that what I'm saying is right."

Asked why his court cases had repeatedly failed, Mr Easton said he was prevented from presenting crucial evidence that proved corruption and unlawful decision making by the council.

"I have the evidence and the evidence is not being aired."

- The Dominion Post

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