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Legal Cases & the Media

“Lawyers turn to PR operatives to win reputational war”

“The Australian” July 28, 2012. Sally Jackson 

The phenomenon of lawyers working with PR people to run high-profile cases in the media as they are being run in the courts, still deeply frowned on in some quarters, is an increasingly popular tactic and will continue to become more common, representatives of both sectors say. 

The issue of the media’s involvement in litigation has become a key point in the sexual harassment suit brought against stood-aside Speaker Peter Slipper, with lawyers for the Commonwealth and Mr Slipper arguing that the fact representatives of accuser James Ashby had liaised with journalists went to prove there was a conspiracy against their client.

Arguing in the Federal Court this week for the case to be thrown out, Mr Slipper’s barrister, Ian Neil SC, described Mr Ashby’s legal representatives, Harmers Workplace Lawyers, as being notorious for using the media to give clients a high public profile, saying the firm “used the media brilliantly to apply the blowtorch”.

Mr Ashby’s barrister, Michael Lee SC, said the firm Maurice Blackburn, which is representing the Commonwealth [ they actually represent Mr. Slipper], had engaged in the same practice, telling the court: “It is commonplace in 2012 for law firms to maximise publicity for cases they commence.”

The judge, Steven Rares, concurred, saying: “It may not have been done when I started, but it’s common practice now.”

While not willing to comment on the case, the PR working with Mr Ashby, Anthony McClellan of AMC Media, defended the practice, saying there was “no point winning the court battle and losing the reputational war”.

“Older traditional law firms find this practice an anathema, but a growing number of progressive ones see a need to have a specialist to work with the lawyers to protect the client’s reputation, as well as their legal rights,” he told The Weekend Australian. “My job is to explain our case with the publicly available information and I think that does good for the system as a whole. What goes on in the courts and court documents should be more available to the public, not less.” 

High-profile cases that have played out largely in the media, and settled out of court, include Christina Rich’s harassment case against PricewaterhouseCoopers, lung cancer sufferer Nolah McCabe’s suit against British American Tobacco and Kristy Fraser-Kirk’s sexual harassment claim against former David Jones boss Mark McInnes. Mr McClellan and Harmers also handled the Rich and Fraser-Kirk cases. 

Mr McClellan said he had been asked to speak at three legal affairs conferences in the next six months on the role of the media in litigation.”It’s quite a small area of expertise because, quite frankly, it is a difficult and complex area. It isn’t just putting out a press release on toothpaste. The legal complexities involved make it a bit of a high-wire act.” ……

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