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James Ashby took the Speaker to Court and lost — but the piper must be paid

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The matter of a $3.75 million legal bill has been simmering since 2012, when James Ashby made false accusations against Speaker of the House Peter Slipper — and the piper is still waiting to be paid, writes investigations editor Ross Jones.

WE MIGHT soon see just how much pull James Ashby still has in the Liberal Party.

On 22 July, the Sydney Morning Herald’s (SMH) Michaela Whitbourn reported:

‘James Ashby is suing the Commonwealth to recover almost $4 million he incurred in legal costs pursuing his former boss Peter Slipper in court.’

That’s a lot of money.

The matter of legal and public relations expenses has been simmering since the 2012 attempt to overthrow the former Labor Government, when Ashby and sitting Coalition MP Mal Brough colluded with others to make false accusations in the Federal Court against the Speaker of the House, Peter Slipper.

Ashby and his legal team Harmers Workplace Lawyers used the Fair Work Act to allege the Speaker sexually harassed his then staffer and defrauded the Commonwealth by cheating on his government-paid Cabcharge.

Section 570 of the Fair Work Act makes it clear all parties are expected to meet their own costs. Only when one party is considered vexatious or unreasonable will the Court order it to pay the other party’s costs. Damages, however, can be awarded to the aggrieved party.

Ashby’s sexual harassment allegations against Slipper were salacious and detailed — so detailed they gave the distinct impression of being the product of more than one mind.

News Corp played the part of magnifier, splashing fantasised lurid stories across multiple pages and screaming "sex scandal" at its readers. Ashby is openly gay and News Corp used his sexuality and his allegations as to what the married, religious Slipper allegedly liked in life, to beat Labor over the head so hard it could only reel.

All a massive conspiracy, of course, laid out in the Murdoch tabloids as facts beyond doubt, readers invited to speculate on the true meaning of "backrub", while pleasuring themselves with Photoshop depictions of Slipper as a "rat".

In December 2012, Justice Rares threw the conspirators’ case out and ordered Ashby to pay Slipper's costs. Despite the cost assumptions of s570, Rares determined Ashby’s action was an abuse of the process of court and a political attack disguised as a harassment case.

Ashby, supported by his allies at News Corp and the Liberal Party, appealed the decision. The appeal – heard on 9 February 2015 – was successful. A victorious Ashby, flanked by Harmer himself and PR support Anthony McClelland, stood moist-eyed on the steps of the Federal Court and announced he would carry on his legal fight and "chance to obtain justice".

Then everything went quiet.

Because there had been a successful appeal, the costs order was set aside pending another Federal Court hearing. By now, Slipper had amassed significant legal expenses and was well out of pocket.

A good argument can be mounted that Ashby and his team bought their action under the Fair Work Act because of the Act’s assumption that each party would pay its own costs. In a weird insurance twist, at that time, the Speaker of the House did not have indemnity insurance — a fact his accusers knew, or should have known. That meant Slipper would be bled dry and financially ruined regardless of the outcome.

"Vindictive" doesn’t even touch the sides.

But in a surprise move, on 12 July 2013, Labor’s Acting Special Minister for State Gary Gray announced the Commonwealth would meet Slipper’s legal expenses as a "grace payment". Gray called it an insurance gap and reasoned that because costs were awarded to Slipper, the Commonwealth would get its money back when Ashby finally coughed up the costs.

By July 2015, James had inveigled his way into One Nation and was flying Pauline around in the as-yet-unexplained Jabiru recreational aircraft.

Fast forward to June 2020. Costs are yet to be paid. James Ashby owes Harmers $3.75 million for his legal fees.

How did Harmers Workplace Lawyers let this happen? How did The firm leave itself exposed to a $3.75 million debt from a Fair Work action, which, even if proven, would have seen James get,  maybe $5,000 damages — tops?

As the Department of Finance apparently stated,

"Mr Ashby chose to pursue litigation where alternate, and potentially more economical options were available to him to seek a remedy in relation to his matter.”

James claimed on several occasions that Harmers represented him pro bono. This is theoretically possible, but so is the idea Harmers always believed it would get paid in full by someone or some entity.

Socially responsible Harmers might be, but racking up $3.75 million in costs for a simple sexual harassment allegation with no prospect of having their costs met under s570 – unless the Court could be persuaded Slipper was vexatious or unreasonable – was a very brave commercial move.

Unless there was some form of insurance in the wings and/or a motive apart from a philanthropic desire to fight sexual abuse.

If there had been an as-yet-to-be-disclosed arrangement by a third party to underwrite Harmers’ costs for their apparently quixotic pursuit of justice, it seems the wheels might have fallen off.

It can only be imagined what tensions a simmering $3.75 million debt might cause.

If, as James alleged, Harmers represented him pro bono, then why was his application in June for an "act of grace" payment, 'knocked back' by the Finance Department?

Surely, if Harmers had been engaged pro bono, Ashby had no costs and would not need an act of grace. But it seems he did.

According to the SMH:

''[Harmers] say Mr Ashby "remains indebted" to the lawyers who represented him in the proceedings.'

Someone hasn’t been paid and wants their money back.

James’ old mates in the Liberal Party have moved on and the party does not give a toss about him anymore. No grace in that mob.

To ScoMo et al, Ashby is no more than something that lives under Pauline Hanson’s shoe — a dangerous wildcard capable of a very nasty headline at any time.

No way are they paying $3.75 million to throw their bodies on top of that hand-grenade.

As reported by the SMH:

'...Mr Ashby is seeking to have the [Finance] Department's decision set aside by the Federal Court and reconsidered by the Finance Minister or his delegate.'

What odds Harmers convincing the court to overturn a well-reasoned decision by the Finance Department then doubling up to convince the Department to change its mind in the face of the criticism it would cop?

Doesn’t look good for someone.

There is $3.75 million at stake and a piper waiting to be paid.

Ultimately though, the bill will be settled one way or the other. James still has the wood on the Liberal Party. He can destroy the current players by exposing what their party did to gain the power it has not yet lost.

And nobody wants that.

Investigations editor Ross Jones is a licensed private enquiry agent and the author of 'Ashbygate: The Plot to Destroy Australia's Speaker'. You can follow Ross on Twitter @RPZJones.

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