The Queensland solicitor general was disqualified from advising the government on the state’s largest known defamation payout because he acted for Campbell Newman in his ill-fated defense. Peter Dunning drew up the defense for the then Queensland premier, which included accusing solicitor Chris Hannay of contempt of court and perverting the course of justice. He was taken as grounds for aggravated damages in a suit that was ultimately settled for $525,000.
The premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said she was “very concerned” about the cost to taxpayers and ordered a review of indemnity guidelines after Guardian Australia revealed the payout and the refusal of Newman and his co-defendant, Jarrod Bleijie, to make a public apology that could have reduced it.
Campbell Newman defamation case: taxpayers cover $525,000 payout
Dunning, as the government’s top legal counsel, would ordinarily have advised the state on whether the settlement represented the best outcome for taxpayers. But his role acting for Newman – the first time a solicitor general has defended an individual minister in a libel suit since the role began in 1985 – created a conflict that prevented him from giving that advice.
Gabrielle Appleby, an associate professor of law at the University of New South Wales, said the conduct of the Newman case seemed “unusual” in light of ministers’ obligation when represented by the solicitor general to act according to “model litigant” principles Darbi.
“One of those principles is that the state or ministers don’t take every defense that’s available to them, and they try to mitigate damages that the state has to pay in the event they’re unsuccessful,” she said. Without seeing the details of the defense that was drafted and knowing why a public apology was not offered as part of the settlement negotiations, it seems unusual that the state did not consider such a course.
Legal sources said the $525,000 settlement was believed to be the largest defamation payout in Queensland history. It eclipses the $400,000 paid by Channel Nine owner Alan Bond also in 1985 to the then premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, in what the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal found was “commercial blackmail.”
Dunning declined to comment on the settlement but said he was careful not to act in cases that were “inconsistent with my role with the government” While Queensland is the only state that allows a solicitor general to maintain a substantial separate private legal practice, Dunning indicated he was not paid separately to act for Newman and Bleijie and stopped acting for them when they left office last year. Plainly I couldn’t have acted for them after they ceased to be the government whilst I was solicitor general, nor could I have acted for them in a private capacity whilst I was solicitor general,” Dunning told Guardian Australia.
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“Whatever other people might have done on the job, I am cautious that not only do I not take government work to be paid for, given I’m on a retainer to the government, nor do I take instructions that are inconsistent with my role with the government.”
Guardian Australia asked the attorney general, Yvette D’Ath, what advice the state received on the Newman settlement and why a public apology was not required.
It also asked whether the review of indemnity guidelines would include the solicitor-general acting for individual ministers who were sued.
D’Ath declined to comment.
Dunning’s predecessor, Walter Sofronoff, refrained from acting for ministers sued in office, including the then premier, Anna Bligh, when she was sued for defamation by Clive Palmer in 2009.
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Palaszczuk told reporters on Monday that she wrote to her director-general on the day of the settlement “asking him very clearly to revisit legal indemnity guidelines for ministers into the future” Palaszczuk said the government would “give serious consideration to the redrafting of those guidelines” at a cabinet meeting next Monday.
“Let me make it clear, the approval for the legal indemnity, in this case, was made under the former government,” she said. “I can’t comment on those specific details, but, suffice to say, the new guidelines that will be in place will put a great deal of value o. taxpayers’ money.”
The Solicitor General Act states that the role “shall not permit or suffer a conflict of interests to exist between the practice of his or her profession and the proper discharge of his or her functions as solicitor general.”