Courts should not handle trivial defamation cases, attorney general says

Christian Porter will examine other methods to settle disputes, following review into Australia’s defamation laws

Trivial defamation cases should be kept out of the courts, the federal attorney general, Christian Porter, has said.

A review of Australia’s defamation laws was launched last year by the council of attorneys general in an attempt to resolve growing concerns that they were complex and failed to protect public interest journalism.

Following the release of the attorneys general discussion paper this week, Porter said there was a “screaming obviousness” that a new threshold test was needed.

“There is an astonishing amount of defamation action going on at the lowest level of our courts – neighbours against neighbours, things said by one person to three other Twitter users,” he told the Australian. “It’s quite incredible … and I think its merits, in terms of its effects on the litigants and its effects on the court system, are highly questionable.”

Guardian Australia reported last year that in the 10 years between 2008 and 2017, media organisations in Australia defended or partially defended almost 300 cases in the courts.

Of the 51% of cases that were settled during this period, a conservative calculation would be that plaintiffs were paid out at least 70% of the time.

After this week’s federal court decision in the defamation action brought by Chinese businessman Chau Chak Wing against the Sydney Morning Herald, which was owned by Fairfax Media at the time, the media union called for an urgent overhaul of Australia’s outdated defamation laws.

A federal court judge ordered the Herald to pay $280,000 in damages to Chau for a 2015 article linking him to a US bribery case.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance media federal president, Marcus Strom, said the decision brought a “chilling effect on legitimate public interest journalism”.

Australia: @withMEAA calls for an overhaul of defamation laws https://t.co/LqDykYpzOb "The defamation system is stacked against Australian journalists. It makes their job of shining a light into public interest matters all the more difficult."

— IFEX (@IFEX) February 25, 2019

“The defamation system is stacked against Australian journalists,” Strom said. “It makes their job of shining a light into public interest matters all the more difficult.

“The system has become unworkable. In fact, our current laws inhibit the public’s right to know and rather than guaranteeing fairness, Australia’s defamation laws are being used as a weapon to threaten and attack legitimate reporting.”

Porter said he would examine other methods to settle disputes, such as having material quickly ­removed from the internet or ­administrative arbitration.

In 2017, the average damages awarded and settlement paid was $137,500, and that is discounting the erroneously high $4.7m awarded to Rebel Wilson by the Victorian trial judge, later reduced on appeal to $600,000.

The actor was left with less than 12% of the record payout originally awarded after being told to hand back the majority of funds to Bauer Media in September 2017. The defamation trial involved a series of articles that made her out to be a liar.

Contributor

Amanda Meade

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Christian Porter v ABC: can the minister sue for defamation over article that didn't name him?
What will be determined by the case? Will it preclude an independent inquiry?

Paul Karp

16, Mar, 2021 @5:27 AM

Article image
Australia’s ‘unworkable’ defamation laws: what the government’s changes could mean
Experts say laws in place since 2006 are no longer fit for purpose and have a chilling effect on reporting in Australia

Josh Taylor and Paul Karp

23, Nov, 2019 @7:00 PM

Article image
Christian Porter lawyers accuse ABC of dragging its feet over defamation trial date
Tense week of negotiations after bid to stop Sue Chrysanthou from appearing for former attorney general in case against broadcaster

Michael McGowan

17, May, 2021 @5:13 AM

Article image
Labor rejects Peter Dutton’s bid for taxpayers to fund politicians’ defamation cases
Dutton says public funding a ‘workplace entitlement’ amid continuing debate over identities of Christian Porter’s anonymous donors

Paul Karp

22, Oct, 2021 @5:58 AM

Article image
Christian Porter loses bid to block affidavit his lawyers said could ‘derail’ ABC defamation case
Judge rules affidavit from Macquarie Bank’s James Hooke is central to the question of whether barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC can act for Porter in defamation case

Michael McGowan

24, May, 2021 @7:26 AM

Article image
News Corp denied documents from case about Christian Porter’s star barrister Sue Chrysanthou
Publisher argued court should be as transparent as possible given ‘extraordinary’ public interest in case

Michael McGowan

17, Jun, 2021 @7:12 AM

Article image
Christian Porter defamation action: ABC engages former solicitor general to lead defence
Justin Gleeson SC was the solicitor general from 2012 to 2016 and served Labor and Liberal prime ministers

Katharine Murphy and Paul Karp

18, Mar, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Christian Porter moves to strike out major sections of ABC’s defamation defence
The former attorney general is suing the public broadcaster and is trying to stop parts of its defence being made public

Paul Karp

06, May, 2021 @9:04 AM

Article image
Christian Porter and ABC deal to destroy defamation case documents challenged in court
Former attorney general’s decision to drop his court case against public broadcaster sparks a fierce war of words

Michael McGowan and Paul Karp

01, Jun, 2021 @4:34 AM

Article image
Defamation nation: why are Australian politicians so quick to sue?
It’s not exactly new to the nation’s political culture but the litigation business is booming – and social media has added fuel to the fire

Paul Karp

12, Jun, 2021 @8:00 PM