THE PSYCHIC MEDIUM

Saxon v Reeves High Court Dunedin A39/87, 6 March 1989 (Judge-alone trial)

Fortune telling and its detractors in 1980s Dunedin...

Facts: Ms Saxon was a welfare beneficiary who advertised her services as a psychic medium. She provided psychic readings to clients at her home in Mornington at a rate of $15 per 15 minutes (about $110 an hour in 2016 currency).

Mr Reeves, also a welfare beneficiary, was a member of the New Zealand Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal – also known as the Skeptics. This group sought to expose as frauds those who claimed to have paranormal abilities.

The claim in this case concerned a number of statements Mr Reeves had written about Ms Saxon in letters he sent to the Department of Social Welfare, Citizens Advice Bureau, the Police, the Solicitor General, and several letters-to-the-editor that were published in the Dunedin Star Midweek (now defunct).

Ms Saxon perceived that Mr Reeves was a “self-appointed busybody”, and sued him on the basis that readers of Mr Reeves’ statements understood them to convey that Ms Saxon had

  • obtained a benefit fraudulently,
  • misled and upset disturbed people on welfare benefits,
  • taken money for fraudulent advice,
  • breached s 16 of the Summary Offences Act (which prohibits the provision of paid psychic readings where there is an intent to deceive the recipient), and
  • persuaded people to go off properly prescribed medication.

Mr Reeves defended his publications on the basis that they were

  • true, or
  • were fair comment made in good faith and without malice on a matter of public interest, or
  • were published on an occasion of common-law qualified privilege.

Trial: Ms Saxon called evidence from previous clients – including a lawyer – who stated their satisfaction as to her claims of psychic powers.

Mr Reeves called a number of witnesses including university lecturers as expert witnesses, who all suggested that Ms Saxon had employed fraudulent techniques, such as ‘cold reading’ – a technique whereby spirit mediums claim they can see or hear spirits of deceased relatives, while in fact giving only vague general statements that could apply to anyone.

Held: Williamson J held the words published were defamatory of Ms Saxon, and that Mr Reeves had not succeeded with any of his defences. Damages were fixed at $6,000 (about $10,850 in 2016).

Williamson J was not convinced that Ms Saxon had psychic powers, though he was impressed with her as a witness. The Judge stated his impression of her that she was “a forthright, no nonsense, outspoken, talkative person of moderate, although not great, intelligence … [who] certainly did not appear to be well educated”. The judge was unimpressed with the inconsistency between Ms Saxon’s poor recordkeeping in respect of her psychic-reading clients, and yet her ability to apply for a benefit correctly. Most importantly, though, the judge stated that there was nothing in her evidence to suggest any doubt or insincerity as to her claims that she was able to receive communications from spirits.

The judge was unimpressed with Mr Reeves’ evidence. The judge described Mr Reeves as an “evasive” witness, and as someone who enjoyed gossiping about Ms Saxon.

The Judge held the defence of truth was not made out – essentially because he did not believe that Ms Saxon had deliberately set out to deceive clients. The defence of fair comment failed because the judge found the material parts of the publications were allegations of fact and not expressions of opinion.

The Judge held that the occasion of publication – reporting suspected crime – was clearly an occasion of qualified privilege. However, he also held that Mr Reeves’ statements were actuated by malice – which defeated the privilege – on the basis that Mr Reeves’ gratuitously attacked Ms Saxon’s personal integrity: “playing the man and not the ball”.

Court of Appeal: The Court of Appeal overturned the High Court judgment in several respects, though Ms Saxon’s claim survived in material respects.

First, the Court of Appeal found that the imputation that Ms Saxon obtained a benefit fraudulently was true because she had failed to report her income properly to the tax authorities.

Secondly, the Court held that in respect of the publications made to the Police and the Social Welfare Department, insufficient evidence of malice had been presented in order to defeat the qualified privilege attaching to these publications.

Thirdly, for the existing publications which were defamatory and for which no defence was available, the Court reduced the damages to $4,500 (about $8,150 in 2016).

Discussion:

While this case is obviously interesting for its peculiar factual basis, the Court of Appeal made important comments on the issue of malice, which helped to inform current orthodoxies in New Zealand on this issue.

Centrally, the Court of Appeal held that malice stood or fell on the basis of whether the privileged motivation for publishing the matter complained of was the dominant motive. In this case, the Court held that Mr Reeves’ dominant motivation for publishing the matters to Police and the Social Welfare Department was the reporting of suspected crime – a privileged motivation – and that he was not out predominantly to cast aspersions on Ms Saxon. Therefore, the privilege survived in respect of these two publications.

The material difference between the trial judge’s findings and those of the Court of Appeal, was the emphasis placed on the issue of “dominant motive” in respect of malice. This case predates the Defamation Act 1992, which has since clarified what is required to displace qualified privilege. Section 19(1) provides:

In any proceedings for defamation, a defence of qualified privilege shall fail if the plaintiff proves that, in publishing the matter that is the subject of the proceedings, the defendant was predominantly motivated by ill will towards the plaintiff, or otherwise took improper advantage of the occasion of publication.

Interesting fact: Only a few years after the trial of Saxon v Reeves, both the presiding judge (Williamson J) and the plaintiff’s counsel (Jim Conradson) were involved in the first Bain murder trial. Williamson J was the trial judge, while Mr Conradson was the Dunedin coroner at the time of the murders.  

High Court Judgment

Court of Appeal Judgment