While the celebrity Rebel Wilson, Geoffrey Rush and Craig McLachlan defamation trials have grabbed headlines, Mr Rayney’s $2.6 million payout holds the record for the largest standing defamation award to a single person.
Ms Wilson’s initial $4.6 million award was reduced to $600,000 on appeal.
Ms Wilson and Mr Rayney both received far more than the legislated cap of $398,500 on defamation payouts after each showed the defamatory claims against them had been aggravated and affected their earning capacity.
The cap was intended to align defamation claims with those for physical injuries.
Mrs Rayney, a mother of two and registrar with the Supreme Court of Western Australia, was found in a deep grave in King’s Park, in Perth, on August 15, 2007.
Detective Senior Sergeant Jack Lee made the defamatory remarks, which a judge later found would be taken to mean that Mr Rayney had killed his wife, rather than simply being a suspect, at a press conference a month later.
Like anyone else, police officers can be sued for defamation if they are insufficiently careful with their language.
And the highly technical nature of defamation law means that they can be held accountable for not only what they actually say, but what the reasonable person might take that statement to mean.
That is one reason why officers are typically careful to distinguish between saying a person is simply a person of interest, suspected of a crime, or actually guilty of one.
Mr Rayney was eventually tried for Mrs Rayney’s murder more than three years after Sargeant Lee’s remarks.
At trial, the court heard claims of tension in the marriage including alleged unfaithfulness by both parties, excessive gambling on Mr Rayney’s part, and Mrs Rayney’s desire to leave Mr Rayney.
Mr Rayney denied he gambled too much and said he had hoped to reconcile with his wife.
The case was circumstantial and Mr Rayney was acquitted in a 2012 judgment by Justice Brian Martin which found the Crown’s case fell well short of establishing proof beyond reasonable doubt. Justice Martin’s judgment was upheld on appeal the next year.
After he was found not guilty, Mr Rayney’s defamation proceedings against the State of Western Australia over Sargeant Lee’s remarks, which he said ruined his legal practice, began in earnest.
Between the emotional hurt and damage to his legal practice, Justice John Chaney in the Supreme Court of Western Australia awarded Mr Rayney $2.6 million.
But Mr Rayney was not satisfied. Justice Chaney only awarded Mr Rayney money for the damage to his legal practice for the years between Sargeant Lee’s remarks and the date when Mr Rayney was arrested and charged.
From that point, Justice Chaney reasoned, damage to Mr Rayney’s legal practice was attributable to the fact he had been charged with murdering his wife and consequent limitations to his ability to practice law.
Mr Rayney appealed. His lawyer Martin Bennett said Mr Rayney was seeking additional damages for harm to his legal practice until 2018 and more interest, which Mr Bennett estimated would total roughly $2.25 million combined.
That appeal was stayed in January by Justices Graeme Murphy and Michael Corboy in the Supreme Court of Western Australia until after Mr Rayney’s other appeal against the state tribunal’s professional misconduct finding is resolved.
Mrs Rayney’s case remains unsolved. A cold-case review of her death was not made public.
Nick is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.