Joe Hockey ordered to pay majority of own legal bills in defamation battle with Fairfax

Treasurer Joe Hockey has been ordered to pay the majority of his own legal costs for his partially successful defamation action against Fairfax Media’s ‘Treasurer for Sale’ story.


The judge last month ruled the phrase ‘Treasurer for sale’ as a headline was acceptable in context with the article, but was defamatory on a poster and in tweets

Today Justice Richard White rejected Hockey’s claim for Fairfax to pay 95 per cent of his estimated $1m legal bill instead ordering the publisher to pay just 15 per cent of the costs. The judge also declined Hockey’s application for an injunction to stop Fairfax printing further stories about his donations.

Last month Hockey was awarded $200,000 in damages from Fairfax after the judge ruled Fairfax’s front page stories with the headline ‘Treasurer for Sale’ were ok, but found a poster and tweets sent from some of the publisher’s accounts using the headline had been defamatory as they lacked proper context.

“Mr Hockey had partial success evidenced by the monetary award to be made in his favour in each proceeding.  His failure on significant elements of his claim is relevant to other aspects of the costs claims,” wrote Justice White.

“I consider that an appropriate order is that Mr Hockey recover 15 per cent of his in the three proceedings. He should be able to recover those costs against the publishers of the SMH and The Age only.

“An order should be made staying further enforcement of those orders once Mr Hockey has recovered 15 per cent of his overall costs.”

There have been estimates that both sides in the case would have legal bills in excess of $1m each meaning Hockey will still be substantially out of pocket despite last month’s damages award.

Fairfax will still have to pay its own substantial legal bill.

In late June, the court awarded $120,000 for a poster by the Sydney Morning Herald, headed “Treasurer for sale”, and $80,000 for two tweets sent by The Age. It dismissed claims relating to the articles.

Declining the injunction Justice White noted Fairfax had already removed the defamatory poster and tweets, and wrote: “I decline to issue the mandatory injunctions sought by Mr Hockey because they would serve no practical purpose.”

A Fairfax Media spokesperson said: “The costs judgment is a fair reflection of the outcome of the proceedings where Mr Hockey failed on all of the matters which were the real core of his claim.”

In a statement issued last night Hockey said: “The Federal Court instead ordered Fairfax Media to pay part of my legal costs.

“Whilst the cost of this action has been considerable for me, my family and friends, it has been far greater for Fairfax Media.

“They are clearly not ‘Independent. Always.’”, he said referring to the Fairfax masthead slogan.  

The Guardian is quoting Fairfax’s legal costs after the ruling at $1.35m and $650,000 for Hockey.

Part of the reason Hockey won partial damages was that Fairfax was unable to argue qualified privilege was because the court found there was malice behind the publication of the defamatory poster and tweets.

During the case a series of emails and text messages between SMH editor-in-chief Darren Goodsir and Age editor Andrew Holden showed Goodsir was angry with Hockey, after the Treasurer demanded an apology over a previous story. In correspodnece with staff, Goodsir wrote: “Given what Andrew and I endured last week with Hockey, I want to have this nailed to the cross in more ways than one.”

In court, Goodsir denied that he had wanted to “crucify” Hockey.

Nic Christensen  

Update: The treasurer has this evening issued the following statement:

“After nearly twenty years in public life I took this action to stand up to malicious people intent on vilifying Australians who choose to serve in public office to make their country a better place.

“I do not regret taking this action.

“The Federal Court has found that the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age defamed me.

“The Federal Court has found that Fairfax Media acted with malice through the actions of their Editor-in-Chief, Darren Goodsir.

“This is an unprecedented finding by a court against an Editor-in-Chief of a major Australian newspaper.

“The Federal Court dismissed Fairfax Media’s defence and awarded me damages.

“The Federal Court dismissed Fairfax Media’s claim for me to pay the majority of their legal fees.

“The Federal Court instead ordered Fairfax Media to pay part of my legal costs.

“Whilst the cost of this action has been considerable for me, my family and friends, it has been far greater for Fairfax Media.

“They are clearly not ‘Independent. Always.’

“As always, my job as Treasurer and Member for North Sydney is the focus of my attention.”



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