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Judge imposes media gag in NeuronZ case

By Jock Anderson

Thursday 28th March 2002

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IMPOSED GAG: Justice Hugh Williams
The High Court at Auckland this week blocked The National Business Review reporting a secret trial involving high-flying biotech research company NeuronZ.

Justice Hugh Williams ordered NBR reporters from his court but made no similar order to exclude members of the public.

At press time yesterday the court was considering an application by NBR to allow reporting of the case and access to the court file subject to the parties making application for conventional suppression orders. The secret trial is a civil application for contempt brought by NeuronZ against consultant Lloyd Tran and is one of several claims and counter-claims surrounding work Mr Tran did for NeuronZ.

NeuronZ is a University of Auckland-linked company bankrolled by high-profile venture capitalists.

Legal claims are linked to developments in the treatment of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, intellectual property wrangles, funding questions and alleged "irregularities" over some of NeuronZ's research material.

In a rare move NBR reporters were ordered from the court by Justice Williams after lawyers urged him privately in chambers to keep the case away from the media.

No other reporters were present on Monday when Justice Williams ordered there would be no media coverage of the four day trial and NBR was shown the door.

Lawyers did not fancy having to apply for conventional suppression orders should the confidential nature of intellectual property issues and commercial sensitivity have arisen during the hearing.

Russell McVeagh heavy-hitter Gerard Curry appeared for NeuronZ and Richard Hawk for Mr Tran.

The judge said it was impracticable to permit the media to remain in court and make notes on the premise they may be able to report the case.

Evidence and cross-examination was expected of high-profile witnesses including NeuronZ research director, leading medical scientist and former dean of the university's school of medicine Professor Peter Gluckman and NeuronZ chairman and millionaire tax lawyer Robin Congreve, both of whom were at the court.

Justice Williams said that in the course of hearing evidence and cross-examination of witnesses it would not be practicable for lawyers to refer to matters of commercial sensitivity as they arose during the hearing if they had to keep seeking suppression orders.

"The court needs not to be inhibited in hearing the case," Justice Williams said.

While the court did its best to conduct its business in public the judge said it would be impracticable to permit the media to be present for this case.

Only lawyers for the parties will get unexpurgated copies of Justice Williams' eventual judgment.

They will be allowed to censor the judgment by removing any commercially sensitive bits before a sanitised version is publicly released.

An earlier confidentiality order on the names of the parties - previously referred to publicly as "A" and "B" was lifted - but no one other than the parties will be permitted to search the court file.

Based in the University of Auckland's medical and health sciences school, NeuronZ's shareholders include Macquarie Bank and Oceania and Eastern Group, the latter owned by Dr Congreve, Geoff Ricketts and Chris Mace.

Investors include Jenny Gibbs and New Zealand Seed Fund, owned primarily by private investors including The Warehouse's Stephen Tindall, Wellington's Todd Family and Telecom chairman Roderick Deane.

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