Familiar tactic dismissed as abuse of process

MICHAEL HARMER has built a successful career in running high profile sexual discrimination lawsuits, chasing multimillion dollar payouts for the downtrodden in a blaze of publicity.

But the application of his well-rehearsed media strategy to James Ashby's sexual harassment lawsuit against the former parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper was described by the Federal Court on Wednesday as an abuse of process and a deliberate attempt to destroy a man's reputation.

Justice Steven Rares reserved his sharpest scorn of the sexual harassment lawsuit for Mr Ashby's solicitor, who he said had made ''scandalous and irrelevant'' allegations about Mr Slipper under privilege.

''A lawyer cannot open a case in court by making statements that may have ruinous consequences to the person attacked that the lawyer cannot substantiate or justify by evidence,'' Justice Rares said.

The Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, said she would consider bringing a complaint against Mr Harmer to the Office of the Legal Services Commission.

''I do think that the findings were very severe, the criticisms were extremely harsh of the way this case was brought … in a way that was designed to maximise media coverage and political harm, not in pursuit of a legal claim that someone might legitimately bring before the court,'' Ms Roxon said.

Mr Harmer fought the case on a no-win, no-fee basis, with his preferred media strategist, the former 60 Minutes producer Anthony McClellan, of AMC Media.

The duo pursued Christina Rich's $10 million lawsuit against Pricewaterhouse Coopers and $37 million in damages against David Jones for Kristy Fraser-Kirk.

Both were settled out of court for what is believed to be considerably less than the claimed amounts, but at huge cost to the companies' reputations.

Mr McClellan is aware of the value of reputation. His website lists reputation and brand as ''your most valuable asset''.

''Media attacks are very costly to your business,'' the website says. ''If the media is hounding, be prepared.''

The media strategy was run off the front foot in the case of Mr Ashby's lawsuit. The Daily Telegraph obtained copies of Mr Ashby's statement of claim before Mr Slipper did.

Justice Rares said Mr Harmer had prosecuted the case with the media in mind.

''As he appreciated, this would be a 'high profile workplace case' that would attract publicity about Mr Slipper who was a 'high profile respondent' ,'' Justice Rares said.

''The deployment by Mr Harmer in the originating application of the scandalous and irrelevant 2003 allegations and the assertion that Mr Ashby intended to report the Cabcharge allegations to the police, had no legitimate forensic purpose. No lawyer acting responsibly could have included either of those matters. Their inclusion made the originating application an abuse of the process of the court.''

The President of the NSW Law Commission, Justin Dowd, said he could not comment on specific complaints.

''However, under the uniform procedure rules of 2005, legal practitioners have a duty to the court, their client and the administration of justice to ensure that matters are only brought to the court that have a reasonable prospect of success.''

The NSW Legal Service Commissioner, Steve Mark, was unable to comment on specifics but solicitors seeking publicity was a thorny issue. ''A lawyer's primary duty is to the court, not to the client,'' Mr Mark said.

Mr Harmer said he was ''shocked and disappointed'' by the decision.

''Neither myself, nor this firm, are part of any conspiracy,'' he said. ''We have assisted James Ashby as an individual who could not otherwise afford to run very expensive litigation in our courts. This is the sole reason we took on James Ashby's case. As a firm, we will be examining all avenues to have this decision, and its comments, overturned through due judicial process.''

This story Familiar tactic dismissed as abuse of process first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.