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Tasman couple lose rates fight after judge rejects counterclaim built on ‘potpourri of legal concepts’

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Retired berry growers Ray and Philippa Hellyer from the Moutere, near Motueka, were sued by the Tasman District Council for failing to pay rates, which they said they withheld until they got the answers they were seeking.

A couple who tried arguing with a judge over their right to negotiate rates payments, according to the services they used, have had their case struck out and been told to pay their rates like everyone else.

Retired Moutere berry farmers Ron and Philippa Hellyer were sued by the Tasman District Council late last year for unpaid rates of just under $2700.

They then lodged a counterclaim against the council and invoiced it for the time spent dealing with the claim.

It followed a similar case last year when a couple refusing to pay rates on their Tasman lifestyle property argued it was because of events in England in 1649.

Ray Hellyer told the Nelson District Court on Thursday their argument wasn’t based on their refusal to pay rates, but their withholding payment until their questions were answered.

“The council is not engaging with us on issues we want resolved,” he said.

Hellyer said he also wanted the council to clarify the constitutional principles by which it charged rates, but felt he had now been targeted by the council’s “unreasonable complainant conduct policy”, which was why he was not getting a response.

Judge Tony Zohrab said the council was not required to provide a response and its reluctance to engage was no basis for them not paying rates.

“Imagine if everyone in Richmond didn’t pay?”

Judge Zohrab said in striking out the couple’s counterclaim, which left them with no defence, that they had not provided the court with a reasonably arguable defence and didn’t address the claim made by the plaintiff, but relied instead on the council not having answered several questions.

He described the Hellyers’ “woefully inadequate defence” as a “potpourri of legal concepts and historical events with a bit of pseudo-legal language thrown in which people are expected to take seriously”.

“Historical legal matters are all very interesting but they’re irrelevant to much of this. You have the wrong end of the stick – what you have done is cherry-pick bits of Latin and bits of the law but it doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t constitute a defence,” Judge Zohrab told them.

Judge Zohrab countered historical references contained in the volumes of material submitted to the court by quoting American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin in telling them that in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.

“If you own property, you’re liable to paying rates.”

He said the decision to strike out the case was aimed at saving them potentially several thousand dollars more in legal costs if the matter was to go to the next stage of a summary judgment argument, which would likely end in the same outcome.

The Hellyers said they had been ratepayers for more than 50 years but this time they had offered to pay what they felt was fair, based on the services they used.

They felt that the council wasn’t treating them with respect.

Ray Hellyer told NZME outside court that they aimed to hold the council accountable for its failure to adequately maintain infrastructure.

“This case was never about ‘refusing’ to pay rates, it was about the ‘withholding’ of rates under the Fair Trading Act until administrative issues the council was avoiding addressing were addressed.”

Hellyer felt the council was “protected in this avoidance by the courts”.

He also told NZME they had not applied for a rates rebate, such as they were entitled to as superannuitants, because they did not feel other ratepayers should have to subsidise them.

Philippa Hellyer told the court they felt “increasingly alarmed” that their basic rights were being trampled on at every turn, to which Judge Zohrab said it was not a rights argument but one on whether they had paid their rates.

He said that on the face of it, the council had filed a simple claim for unpaid rates, and it was clear the defendant owned the property named, and it was clear they were liable to pay rates.

Judge Zohrab appreciated that the Hellyers were lay people representing themselves in a court setting that “bent over backwards” to help people who couldn’t be expected to know the law.

He said it wasn’t a complicated claim and regrettably he had to strike out the counterclaim.

The Hellyers were instructed to pay the outstanding rates plus the council’s legal costs.

Tracy Neal is a Nelson-based Open Justice reporter at NZME. She was previously RNZ’s regional reporter in Nelson-Marlborough and has covered general news, including court and local government for the Nelson Mail.

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