By Joan Evatt
May 3, 2013
It was Peter Slipper’s turn today in Day 2 of the Ashby v Slipper Appeal. Slipper was represented by well-known Sydney silk, Ian Neil SC. He had to wait for twenty minutes or so while Michael Lee SC endeavoured to add further to his submissions from yesterday.
The issues Lee wanted to expand on were questions about the urgency of Ashby’s application preventing Ashby and his representatives from pursuing all alternative remedies available to him on the sexual harassment issue.
Lee also raised the question of whether there was evidence given on what was in the mind of Michael Harmer on the question of ‘genuine steps.’
He got short shrift from Justice Siopis. As Mr Lee had a right of reply following Ian Neil’s submissions it may have been more circumspect to wait until then to raise these issues.
It is the role of Mr Neil SC to argue that the decision of Justice Rares is correct and should stand. He outlined in order nine subject headings raised in the written submissions of Ashby and Harmer he wanted to address.
“The best laid plans of mice and men …” on paper this would have looked neat and logical. In reality their Honours were feisty and challenging. For most of the remainder of the morning Neil’s oral submissions were punctuated with rugged questioning as we bounced from issue to issue making it increasingly difficult for those few from the media and the general public present to follow with any confidence.
At no stage did Mr Neil show any impatience with or discomfiture by this morning’s proceedings. It is worth noting that he didn’t wilt under the pressure either, but continued to argue the merits of his case.
Neil started his oral submission considering the questions of procedural fairness as raised in the Ashby submission. In his decision Rares J is satisfied Slipper established that Mr Ashby had combined with one or more of the persons named as part of the conspiracy that would result in his finding ‘an abuse of the process’.
Justice Gilmour asked whether it only related to Mr Harmer. Mr Neil’s answer took the court down a grammatical path. A definitive “No Your Honour” was his response. The relevant paragraph in Rares’s decision ‘has to relate conjunctively/disjunctively with each, some or all of the persons named… It’s inelegant English but it’s not bad syntax and its meaning is clear.’ His Honour didn’t continue asking questions about sentence structure.
The grammar lesson set the tone of the rest of the morning’s hearings.
Rares J found in his decision that Mr Harmer wasn’t part of the conspiracy to abuse the process of justice – that he was an innocent party in bringing the court into disrepute. However, Rares was very critical of the ‘professional conduct’ of Mr Harmer, commencing with his drafting of the originating application.
Justice Siopis asked whether it was legitimate to question the decision’s criticisms and their severity of Mr Harmer on professional grounds. Mr Neil replied that Mr Harmer was ultimately responsible for both the 2003 allegations and the Cabcharge allegations being included in Mr Ashby’s originating application. Both of these allegations were abandoned in Mr Ashby’s 15th May 2012 statement of claim.
Of course by then these allegations had become front page news, as they formed part of the originating application.
Suddenly we were off track again and trying to ascertain Mr Harmer’s purpose in the inclusion of both the 2003 allegations and the Cabcharge allegations in the originating application.
Neil was steely in arguing that there was just no legitimate forensic purpose to the inclusion of 2003 allegations. It is just ‘salacious detail’ with no illegality or wrongdoing on Mr Slipper’s part, and ‘which can’t give rise to any legal consequences or any cause of action.’
Bounce. Bounce. Suddenly the court’s in the middle of discussing Mr Ashby’s predominant purpose which Rares found, after looking through a truckload of text messages and emails, to be the intention of bringing Mr Slipper into disrepute.
Mr Slipper was representing himself when these issues were raised before Justice Rares. Mr Harmer went into the witness box, and Mr Ashby could have been called by Mr Slipper, but wasn’t. Both men were not cross-examined by Slipper as to their intent. All their Honours have raised, through thorough questioning, the lack of cross-examination by Slipper of both Ashby and Harmer, which would indicate it could be a problem.
The difficulty of hearing concurrently both an application for leave to appeal and the substantive appeal itself, was made abundantly clear when Mr Neil suddenly raised arguments against Mr Harmer being given leave to appeal the Rares decision.
The morning came alive, and stayed on topic when Mr Neil raised the question of Mr Harmer’s ability to appeal as a non-party. He argued that Mr Harmer didn’t have a ‘sufficient interest’ in the matter to appeal.
Neil argued that despite the fact the Rares J raises questions with regard to the professional conduct of Mr Harmer, such findings in themselves have no legal effect. The right to appeal can only happen if and when orders were made against Mr Harmer. They haven’t.
Neil went on to state ‘there is no authority anywhere’ that supports a non-party being given leave to appeal if he doesn’t have ‘sufficient interest’ nor does Mr Harmer meet any of the tests outlined in the Federal Court Rules, 2011.
The implication of Mr Neil’s point was clear. If their Honours grant Mr Harmer leave to appeal they will be creating a precedent that could well open the flood gates to aggrieved third parties who may be mentioned adversely in findings.
For the first time in the morning’s session their Honours became very quiet as the implication of Neil’s point sank in.
The remainder of Mr Neil’s arguments in support of the Rares decision seemed almost inconsequential by comparison. It dealt with the General Steps Statement and the matter of Ashby’s perceived urgency.
The right of reply by both Mr Lee and Mr Pritchard were thankfully brief. Mr Pritchard endeavoured to counter Neil’s arguments against granting Mr Harmer leave to appeal. He raised the issue of natural justice, which had already been dealt with by Neil in his original written submissions.
Mr Neil earned his money today.
The matter is now for the consideration of the Full Court. These are the options they have before them.
1. Neither leave to appeal is successful and the Rares decision stands;
2. Harmer’s leave to appeal is unsuccessful but Ashby ‘s leave to appeal is successful but Ashby loses the appeal and the Rares decision stands;
3. Harmer’s leave to appeal is unsuccessful but Ashby wins both his leave to appeal and the appeal itself. The result is that the trial of Ashby v Slipper is then heard in full;
4. Harmer and Ashby win their leave to appeal, but lose the appeal proper and the Rares decision stands;
5. Harmer and Ashby win both their leave to appeal and the appeal proper. The result is that the trial of Ashby v Slipper is then heard in full. Slipper will be open for legal costs from Harmer as well as Ashby.
Your guess is as good as mine as to how their Honours will find in this case. Options 2 and 3 provide easier alternatives without creating a precedent for which the rest of the legal fraternity won’t thank them.