04 April 2014

Santa, Privacy and Defamation

In Ritson v Burns [2014] NSWSC 272 McCallum J in the NSW Supreme Court has awarded $7,500 to a former policeman regarding publication of a defamatory statement to a single person.

That judgment, and preceding cases, are worth reading carefully. 

The Supreme Court was satisfied that Ritson, now a private agent, was "extremely hurt by the defamatory remark that he is a criminal". Ritson initiated defamation proceedings in 2011 over publications related to his 2009 suspension from duty for telling a man in custody in 2006 that the man's partner was transgender.

Ritson and a colleague were charged in 2009 with an offence under the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act 1998 (NSW), were convicted of that offence in local court and sentenced to 125 hours of community service. Ritson was accordingly suspended from duty without pay but following a successful "hardship application" part of his salary was reinstated.

He had appealed the magistrate's decision immediately on conviction and appears to have concurrently commenced proceedings against the Commissioner of Police under the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act in the then NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal, including the claim of breach of privacy in relation to the disclosure to a third party of his suspension status and remuneration. In QQ v Commissioner of Police, New South Wales Police Force [2011] NSWADT 54 that information was said to have been published on a newspaper website by the third party.

In 2010 the conviction was quashed in R v Ritson; R v Stacey [2010] NSWDC 160, with Ritson and colleague being held not to have improperly disclosed personal information.

Controversy was reflected in Ritson taking defamation action against parties such as Gay & Lesbian Community Publishing Limited (Sydney Star Observer) and Sydney Educational Broadcasting Limited.

Action against Burns was added in 2012, with Ritson claiming Burns told a process server that "Brendan Ritson is a criminal. I'm not going to give you my address; you can go and serve Santa Claus". The Court noted a subsequent email from Burns to Ritson’s solicitor that featured the statement -
Your client Mr Ritson is a deceitful and contemptuous little grub. Did you know Grubs crawl close to the ground Sir? Your client Mr Ritson can go and get stuffed.
Overall the Court appears to have been unimpressed, with McCallum J - in noting the suggestion that Santa be served - commenting
In due course an order was made for substituted service (not in the manner suggested by Mr Burns to Mr Slater).
Ritson - characterised by the Court as "a competent, honourable police officer who acted with integrity" - indicated that the statements by Burns
did cause me significant distress that Mr Burns was persisting with making defamatory comments about me. I’d fought for several years to clear my name and successfully did so.
Burns in the past had made highly laudatory statements about Ritson, with a communication to the NSW Police Commissioner in 2002 reading
Constable Ritson is attached to Surry Hills LAC. This young man is a striking individual, who will look you straight in the eye. His honesty shines in his face like a beacon. I really like this young man.
I think it's very important to take an interest in our young police officers, and for me it's good to watch them mature and grow in confidence, as Constable Ritson is.
So Commissioner your job is not safe - cause there are young men like Constable Ritson who will fit into your shoes very easily one day.
Sir, he is a great young fella, doing a grand job - for you and for me. So next time you're in Surry Hills LAC put out your hand and shake the hand of a man destined for leadership. Constable Ritson, you're a fine Australian.
May Constable Ritson's life be blessed with many great journeys and policing future and happiness.
Some of the other claims were settled by agreement or were struck out in Ritson v Gay & Lesbian Community Publishing Limited [2012] NSWSC 483.

In unpacking the $7,500 damages  McCallum J stated -
The overriding aspect of this assessment has been the need to provide consolation for the significant hurt to feelings experienced by Mr Ritson but vindication of reputation is not irrelevant.
In Ritson v Commissioner of Police [2013] NSWSC 1396 the Court stated that Ritson
was formerly a police officer in the NSW Police Force. He ceased to be a member of the NSW Police Force on 10 March 2011, having reached the rank of Senior Constable ....
The background relationship between Mr Ritson and the NSW Police Force provides some context to the central events which are the subject of determination in these proceedings. Mr Ritson submits that the context is of central importance.
Mr Ritson was a member of the NSW Police Force from 21 December 2001 until 10 March 2011. He spent most of his service in the general duties area of the police force, and was attached to the Surry Hills Local Area Command. When he left, he was a Senior Constable.
The course of his service in the NSW Police Force was not an entirely smooth one. Mr Ritson made reports of misconduct concerning police officers who were attached to the Kings Cross Local Area Command. He also made a number of public interest disclosures concerning corrupt conduct alleged to have been engaged in by members of the NSW Police Force, including commissioned officers. One of those officers had been attached to the Kings Cross Local Area Command.
Subsequently to these complaints, confidential information concerning Mr Ritson was, he asserts, improperly accessed by members of the NSW Police Force who were not authorised so to do, and disclosed to third parties, including members of the public.
Mr Ritson was discharged from the NSW Police Force as a result of recognised work-related injuries. His discharge did not arise in any way from any misconduct or any other unacceptable behaviour.
Mr Ritson relies upon the rocky course of his service as a police officer to justify his belief that the failure to investigate his complaint ... was based upon matters personal to him, rather than legitimate operational reasons.
On 25 November 2011, Mr Paul Carey, the Assistant Commissioner, who was the Commander of Professional Standards Command, acknowledged in a letter to MrRitson that a number of the investigations of which he was the subject, and the communications with him about them, were not satisfactory in many respects. Mr Carey said, that as a consequence of MrRitson's legitimate and appropriate registration of his concerns about this inappropriate conduct, a review was undertaken of the complaint system, and procedures were amended to address many of the concerns that Mr Ritson had raised.
The letter from Assistant Commissioner Carey to Mr Ritson included this paragraph:
"The NSW Police Force has taken all practicable steps to ensure your files are never again improperly disclosed to, or accessed by, third parties, and it genuinely regrets that the shortcomings and mistakes referred to above have caused you injury, distress and humiliation."
... In 2009, Mr Ritson brought proceedings against the Commissioner of Police in the Administrative Decisions Tribunal of NSW. Those initial proceedings were settled on the basis of confidential terms. There have been a number of other proceedings since then.
As well, Mr Ritson has taken civil proceedings for assault against a serving police officer, which resulted in a small award of damages in his favour. Subsequent criminal proceedings brought by him, as a private informant, against the same police officer were dismissed.
This short description indicates that it is unsurprising that Mr Ritson has taken the refusal to investigate his complaints to be a demonstration of ongoing bad faith by members of the NSW Police Force located at the Kings Cross Local Area Command towards him. Whether or not he is correct in his perception, he attributes to them such ill motivation in the decision to decline to investigate his complaint.
Other litigation includes Ritson v Myers [2013] NSWCA 176, Ritson v Myers [2012] NSWSC 1504, and Ritson v Commissioner of Police, NSW Police Force [2010] NSWADT 22.