20/02/2007 - 22:00

Bringing rampant litigation to heel

20/02/2007 - 22:00


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In 1997, gold explorer Westgold Resources bought a parcel of St Barbara shares from Perth investor, Ron Woss.

In 1997, gold explorer Westgold Resources bought a parcel of St Barbara shares from Perth investor, Ron Woss.

Westgold sold the shares a few months later and ended up being out-of-pocket to the tune of several million dollars. So, in 2000, it launched legal action against Mr Woss and St Barbara.

Mr Woss, in turn, made a claim against St Barbara and its former chairman, Peter Jones.

This month, nearly 10 years after the original transactions, the legal action finally came to a close when the parties negotiated an out-of-court settlement.

After all the pre-trial posturing and three weeks of hearing, they decided it was better to compromise and settle the matter.

The Westgold matter illustrates one of the most frustrating aspects of the legal system: long-running and increasingly complex and costly cases that clog up the courts and make access to justice more difficult for everybody else.

The legal imbroglio involving the University of WA, one of its former employees, Dr Bruce Gray, and the cancer treatment company he founded, Sirtex Medical, is another prime example.

Sirtex has pioneered a great medical breakthrough, but unfortunately the company is becoming better known for its legal fights.

UWA believes it is the true owner of the company’s intellectual property and has commenced legal action to prove the point. Sirtex denies this and says if it loses the case, it will take action against its founder and major shareholder, Dr Gray, on the basis that he must have misled the company.

Four different law firms are now involved, costs are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and cancer sufferers are no better off.

Chief Justice Wayne Martin said last year that one of his priorities was to reform the legal system, to cut the cost of justice and make the court system more efficient.

He has set himself a big challenge, since individuals and companies – from the bloody minded to the angry and the coldly calculating – will go to great lengths to protect their reputations and financial interests.

Federal Court judge Robert French provided a small example of common sense last week when he dismissed Dr Gray’s application for leave to issue a cross-claim against his former legal adviser, Freehills.

Justice French refused leave on the grounds that it would add to the complexity and costs of proceedings.

Unfortunately this could be one step forward and two steps back for the court system, since Dr Gray may choose to commence a distinct action against Freehills.


Federalism proves a tricky beast

With John Howard and Kevin Rudd in town this week, discussions inevitably turn to the roles and responsibilities of the national and state governments.

This debate is not new – it has been going on since the 1890s when the creation of a federal system was accepted, grudgingly in some cases, as the best way forward for Australia’s colonies.

Canberra has progressively accumulated more power over the years: especially during World War II when the states handed over income tax powers, during the Whitlam years, and right through to the centralist Howard government.

It is hard to imagine the trend ever being reversed. The proposed federal takeover of the Murray Darling River system is just the latest example of Canberra spreading its money and influence ever wider.

When Alan Carpenter became premier of Western Australia just more than a year ago, one of his first major initiatives was to drop the shrill posturing normally adopted by WA premiers and, instead, approach Canberra in a calm, reasoned manner.

Whether this approach proves more successful remains to be seen, but it certainly elevated the quality of discourse on federalism and fostered hope among sensible people that mature compromises could be negotiated.

40under40 awards highlight achievers

WA Business News’ annual 40under40 awards have been a great success since they kicked off six years ago, and this year’s winners add further to the program’s stature.

One of the notable aspects of the award winners is their enormous diversity, from university graduates pursuing a professional career to early school leavers who have got ahead on their onus and commercial savvy.

Some of the award winners have gone on to become well-known figures in the Perth business community; people such as Azure Capital’s Mark Barnaba, iiNet’s Mike Malone and Sally Malay Mining’s Peter Harold.

Most of the 40under40 winners, however, are just quietly continuing to build great business success stories.

Importantly, the awards also recognise people who have more than a single-minded focus on their career. Business people who give back to their communities are deserving of special praise, and are given that through the 40under40 program.

Congratulations to all of this year’s winners and especially Australian Mine ServicesJulie Smith-Massara, judged the 2007 1st Amongst Equals.


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