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‘Rolls-Royce matter’: Costs to run Lehrmann defamation trial revealed

Going back for the hat in the lion’s den cost Bruce Lehrmann $2 million, but a further breakdown of the legal bill revealed just how much more Network Ten spent to defend the failed defamation trial.

user iconNaomi Neilson 27 June 2024 Corporate Counsel
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Federal Court Justice Michael Lee made orders for Lehrmann to pay Network Ten $2 million in costs – a figure that was discounted from the $3.6 million Network Ten said it spent on its legal costs.

It comes two months after Justice Lee found, on a civil standard of proof, that Lehrmann raped Brittany Higgins in Parliament House.

Referring to the abandoned criminal trial, Justice Lee noted at the end of his judgment that “having escaped the lion’s den, Lehrmann made the mistake of going back for his hat”.

 
 

Following orders made last month, the $2 million is made up of 100 per cent of the indemnity costs and 70 per cent of costs on a party-party basis, plus a discount of an additional 30 per cent on top.

The possibility of referring the sum to a referee was raised, but Justice Lee said the “quick and dirty” approach of ordering the $2 million would save the parties unnecessary additional costs.

“I do not think there would be any reason why I ought not draw the conclusion that the figure of $2 million is a discount, perhaps a significant discount, in the amount that would be recoverable, should the matter proceed to a referee,” Justice Lee said.

“Although it is a broad-brushed assessment, it seems to me entirely appropriate to say it is further expenditure of unnecessary costs.”

When handing down the order on Thursday (27 June), Justice Lee said Lehrmann is “a man of modest means” and there was no real likelihood “he will be in a position to pay a substantial costs order”.

Lehrmann’s lawyer, Paul Svilans, said that while his client “neither consents nor opposes” the costs order, he made several submissions about the fees incurred by Network Ten’s lawyers.

One of the major concerns was the $11,000 daily rate charged by Network Ten counsel Dr Matthew Collins KC.

Svilans submitted this figure was “in excess of the national guide to counsel fees”, which he said has a top rate of $7,500.

“I am in fact quibbling a bit, but that was relevant,” Svilans said.

He went on to explain that the rate charged by Lisa Wilkinson’s counsel, Sue Chrysanthou, was thousands of dollars less than that of Collins.

Justice Lee said that in his “long experience”, defamation work is more expensive than commercial work, but he agreed that Collins’ rate “was probably the top of the rate for the defamation bar”.

However, Justice Lee said that given Collins’ seniority and experience, the $11,000 figure “was to be expected”.

“It certainly does not strike me as anything other than an amount that is appropriately recoverable,” Justice Lee said.

Svilans also drew Justice Lee’s attention to two invoices rendered by Network Ten in late May, a month and a half after the judgment was handed down, in the sum of $170,000 for what he claimed was for costs arguments, case management hearings, and a contempt issue.

“I think you can infer that $170,000, that’s been run non-pejoratively on a Rolls-Royce manner, and I think you can infer, absent any other evidence, that’s how the entire matter has been run,” he said.

Responding to this point, Zoe Graus said many of the invoices included discounts and clarified with Justice Lee that work was distributed appropriately throughout the junior and senior lawyers.

Justice Lee said the figures “do not surprise me”, given his experience in ordering judgment sums.

Network Ten flagged it would pay some of Wilkinson’s legal bills under an indemnity costs basis on a without prejudice basis, given the unlikelihood of Lehrmann being able to pay the costs order.

While their lawyers previously offered Wilkinson a compromised figure of $607,850 plus GST – given the original sum of $1.8 million was originally sought – they found this figure was “too generous” and reduced it to $558,548.

The court heard two retainers were issued by Wilkinson on the same day, but part of it was withdrawn, and she “no longer seeks that amount because there was no certainty on a quantum meruit basis – which is where the law practice carries the onus of proof.

Because the sum owed to Wilkinson may be reduced by a referee, Graus asked the figure not be ordered.

“We’re not willing to commit to a judgment sum of that amount today,” Graus told Justice Lee.

The lawyer for Wilkinson, Michael Elliott SC, agreed.

Justice Lee said it would have been “attractive” if all issues of costs could be wrapped up by the referee, but he said it was likely an additional amount would need to be quantified.

Lehrmann has filed a notice of appeal against Justice Lee’s judgment and reportedly intends to represent himself.

Network Ten has sought an order that Lehrmann pay $20,000 in security to cover some costs in the event he loses the appeal.

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