For 14 years, Blake Dawson backed the liquidator of the Bell Group. After a three-year trial, a 2643-page judgement and the largest commercial award ever handed down in Australia, Angela Priestley speaks about the case with lead partner Ashley Wharton
When the Bell Group case got underway in 1995, Paul Keating was prime minister, internet access was limited and expensive, and the term e-discovery was still years from conception.
In 2009, following the largest judgement ever awarded in Australian history of $1.58 billion against a syndicate of 20 banks, Blake Dawson is winding down from the case that formed an integral part of its history.
The case, heard in the West Australian Supreme Court, following the collapse of Alan Bond's Bell Group in 1990 - and the subsequent bid by liquidators to recover around $350 million from lenders - was originally launched on behalf of the liquidator, by Blake Dawson partner Richard Fisher, who later became chairman of the firm.
Partner Ashley Wharton got involved in 1998, as the firm was increasing its resources for the case in light of it becoming much bigger than anticipated.
His role in the matter saw Wharton spend a three-year stint in Perth away from his home in Melbourne. He later returned to Melbourne, commuting back and forth to Perth as the case progressed.
The time span of the case couldn't have represented a much more revolutionary phase for information technology. Wharton says information management presented one of the biggest challenges in the case, especially given the sheer size of information required.
Such information involved looking at the financial position of a large number of companies. Says Wharton: "Initially, it was over a reasonably limited period, say 1989 to 1990, but the way the defence unfolded meant that we had to then look at the banking relationships that the group of companies had with the 20 banks."
This meant the discovery process was pushed back to around 1983, offering a seven to eight-year period of discovery. Well before the availability of significant IT, Wharton says hard copies of documents were produced and searches done manually.
"We did it the old fashioned way, by having groups of people who were well organised, and had good hierarchal systems for sharing information and pushing information up to decision makers," says Wharton.
Meanwhile, there were also numerous witnesses to manage -- meaning the production and fielding of witness statements, and ensuring people were available to go to court, also proved difficult. The problem was overcome, says Wharton, by using software and managing a small group of people to keep details current on witness statements as they progressed through their different stages.
By way of resources, Wharton says the case almost became a practice group in itself, at times taking up one-and-a-half floors of the Blake Dawson Perth office with plenty of young lawyers and university students rotated through the process.
Wharton adds that the case almost became a bonding point for staff within the firm. "We had to call on the contract market, on the paralegals [and we had] a lot of secondments of people from Sydney and Melbourne to spend time on the case. It was quite an interesting and diverse group of people we brought in."
These days Wharton is content to stay in Melbourne. He is studying the lessons learned from the case -- about information management, budgeting and the positives of peer reviews -- to form innovative projects that may assist the firm with similar matters in the future.
Meanwhile, the Bell Group case is not over just yet. The syndicate of 20 banks have agreed to appeal the judgement.
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