The long sordid history of the New Zealand Courts added a familiar chapter on 14 February 2007 when a three-Judge panel ruled that 67 year old Feilding Barrister Dr. Rob Moodie was guilty of contempt for publishing an engineer’s report (the “Butcher Report”, after the engineer who wrote it) that concluded the New Zealand Army was guilty of poor construction that resulted in a King Country bridge collapse that killed a beekeeper on 22 March 1994.
In Court proceedings eerily reminiscent of the Air New Zealand Mt. Erebus crash cover-up and the notorious Russell McVeigh bloodstock and “Winebox” scandals that censored evidence of massive investor and tax frauds by some of New Zealand’s most prominent lawyers at the time, the High Court repeatedly sequestered the report, keeping it out of evidence, while allowing the Army to submit a shadow report that, not surprisingly, removed all reference to the Army’s negligence.
The Army’s shadow report which sanitized the investigative findings was at legitiamte issue because Keith and Margaret Berryman, the couple to whose farm the bridge provided access to, were sued by the Occupational Safety and Health Department in relation to the accidental death for not maintaining the bridge properly. Dr. Moodie, who had been hired as the Berryman’s lawyer was immediately troubled that a bridge built by the Army with a 40 year lifespan could collapse after 10 years. The previous bridge on the site had been built in 1916 and had lasted for 66 years. Dr. Moodie’s family had a long history in bridge construction, this avocation only adding to his intrigue as to why the original report was not being made available.
Through a succession of High Court judges that began with Justice John Richard Wild ruling that the investigative report would remain suppressed, Moodie persisted in seeking its release. In response to repeated requests for a copy of the investigative report, Moodie says then Solicitor General Terrence Arnold told him that there was nothing further in the report that would be a surprise or relevant. Nonetheless, he was eventually offered a copy of the report on the condition that he sign a confidentiality agreement which prohibited his disclosing its content to anyone. Moodie signed the agreement.
When the Butcher report was finally provided in early 2005, Dr. Moodie was astounded not only as to the contents, which contrasted materially with the Army’s shadow version, but also because he says he had been misled by the Solicitor General as to its content. The report disclosed that the Army’s “decision to use two 300 mm x 75 mm beams bolted together for the transoms (the cross beams that hold up the roadway surface) in place of a solid 300 mm x 150 mm member” was the largest single factor in the bridge failure. This had the effect of trapping moisture, inviting and accelerating decay from the inside out. Speed of the beekeeper’s truck and improper maintenance were consdered as lesser factors but the improper construction had doomed the bridge to fail. That solicitor, Terrence Arnold, has since been appointed by the New Zealand government to a permanent seat on the New Zealand Court of Appeal. In contrast, Moodie, having gone public with what he is convinced was an utter abuse of Court process, is fighting for his professional life after being found in contempt for posting of this factual report on the www.moodieonlaw.com website.
In the contempt hearing held in Wellington 30-31 January 2007, Dr. Moodie argued that, as a former high ranking police officer and current lawyer, he had an obligation as an officer of the Court to reveal corruption that resulted in a miscarriage of justice. He cited well-established law that supported the Court’s equivalent duty to not be governed by protocol that resulted in a miscarriage of justice and/or abuse of the Court process. Justices Judy Potter, David Baragwanath and John Hansen disagreed, viewing the matter as a simple and deliberate breach of a court endorsed agreement. Dr. Moodie was fined $5,000 plus costs. He responded that he would rather go to jail than pay the fine and immediately announced his intent to relinquish his legal license. It is understood that a Canterbury farmer has since paid the fine on his behalf and a large sympathetic outcry at his announced resignation from the law has resulted in his subsequent decision to continue his fight as a practicing lawyer.
Moodie’s fight has gained him recognition internationally. In a not unrelated development, the Australian Supreme Court last year refused to allow the extradition of a defrocked catholic priest to New Zealand to face sexual abuse charges, saying there were legitimate concerns about his getting a fair trial in New Zealand.