Below is an important letter Dawn wrote to Federal minister Mal Brough two and a half years ago, which addresses many of the key issues from Dawn's perspective:
PO Box 60
18 October 2006
FOR THE URGENT ATTENTION OF:
The Honourable Mal Brough MP
Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs
Canberra Mail Centre ACT 2610
Re: Bankruptcy Proceedings Issued By The Australian Government Solicitor
I am writing to you in the hope that you will be able to assist me with respect to bankruptcy proceedings that have been instituted against me following sixteen years of litigation. Although I was successful in that litigation the outcome has had a catastrophic effect on me, my health and my career. It has now culminated with the Commonwealth serving me with a Bankruptcy Notice no doubt with the ultimate intention of forcing me into bankruptcy.
I am approaching you in the hope that you will intervene and bring an end to what has been a disastrous last fifteen years of my life.
In the briefest terms can I explain.
I was born in 1946 and educated in Adelaide.
I chose to follow a career as a secondary school music teacher and did so for ten years.
Thereafter I was interested in directing my activities to counselling women and children who had been subject to domestic violence and cruelty. I undertook and completed a degree of Bachelor of Social Administration and applied for and was ultimately appointed the administrator of two women’s shelters in Adelaide.
The shelters were jointly funded by the Commonwealth and State Governments and from 1978 myself and a number of other workers devoted ourselves to counselling and assisting a large number of people who attended the shelters for assistance.
Joint Report – Defamation
On 11 August 1987 a report was published by a joint committee which had been set up by the State and Federal Governments. The report was from an independent review committee which had been commissioned to examine the management and operation of the women’s shelters.
The report was ultimately published and received extensive media coverage from television stations and the press. The report contained unwarranted and untruthful allegations of sexual and financial impropriety on the part of myself and others associated with the management of the shelters.
The impact of the report was devastating. I had devoted my career and life to counselling women and children and given up everything to pursue this career. I had considered it was a most worthwhile cause and I had intended to devote my life to that career.
As a consequence of the report, funding was withdrawn and the Christies Beach shelter closed.
The impact on my health was immediate and I remained on sickness benefits for two years.
I fled the State and relocated in Victoria, but my professional reputation, my ambitions and my health had been effectively destroyed.
I was left without means of income.
Although I obtained some employment in Victoria for approximately twelve months I ultimately had to resign from that position because of my health and political pressure.
Because the allegations in the report were completely false and misleading, because my career had been ruined and I was without income I took legal advice and commenced defamation proceedings out of the Supreme Court in South Australia.
Whilst I had little in the way of funds, I obtained legal representation and proceedings were instituted on 26 June 1990.
The Defendants to the proceedings were the authors of the report (these being the State and Commonwealth employees, as well as the State and Federal Governments). I also sued the two television stations who had published the findings of the report.
The legal proceedings were extensive and protracted and the Defendants for the next ten years took numerous steps to have the proceedings defeated.
The trial eventually commenced in June 2001 and proceeded for sixty-seven days. For sixty of those days I was without legal representation and fought the case on my own.
The State, the Commonwealth and the television stations were all represented by Counsel, an army of solicitors and in some cases Queens Counsel.
In a judgment delivered on 21 June 2002 Justice Debelle, a senior and highly regarded member of the bench published his reasons. He described the allegations as a “shocking defamation”.
I was ultimately awarded the sum of approximately $585,000 in damages, together with the costs of the action.
In subsequent contribution proceedings the amount to which the Commonwealth was found liable to pay was $39,117.42.
Although the award of compensation was less than I had expected I felt that my action in bringing the litigation had been vindicated. Needless to say the years in preparing the case for trial, the trauma of fighting the case in court without legal representation and the associated affect on my health meant that I had been without income for virtually all of that period.
Because of apparent unlimited resources the State, the Commonwealth and the two television stations all lodged appeals.
In order to defend the judgment I was forced to retain solicitors and barristers.
My health deteriorated, I was unable to work and spent a vast amount of time instructing lawyers to defend the appeals.
I was required to sell a property which had been left to me by my mother in order to pay legal costs associated with the appeal and the subsequent appeal to the High Court.
Eventually the Full Court allowed the appeal.
For reasons for which I am unable to understand the two television stations and the Commonwealth were exonerated. The damages awarded to me were reduced, but I retained the judgment against the State of South Australia.
Whilst I was awarded 75% of my costs against the State, I was ordered to pay the costs of the Commonwealth and the two television stations.
The total claims for costs of the Commonwealth and the two television stations exceeded $1 million and the liability to pay these sums would have meant that even though I had succeeded in the litigation overall, the result would have been my bankruptcy.
Faced with this I had no further alternative than to instruct my lawyers to appeal to the High Court.
Because the High Court considered that the matter was not of public interest and only involved legal costs my application for special leave to appeal was refused.
Subsequent Action by the Commonwealth
The end of the court processes left me in poor health and financially ruined as I faced costs orders of the television stations and the Commonwealth of over $1 million.
The two television stations have not pursued me for their legal costs. The Commonwealth, however, has been relentless.
Since the dismissal of the High Court proceedings the Australian Government Solicitor, on behalf of the Commonwealth, has:
• Made a demand for costs in excess of $600,000.
• Obtained an injunction against me, freezing my assets.
• Relentlessly pursued the claim for costs against me and eventually obtained an order for lump sum payment of costs of $380,000.
• Issued a Bankruptcy Notice against me with a view to obtaining a Bankruptcy Order.
As a consequence of this I have had funds from the sale of a house that I owned frozen and have had access to my bank accounts limited.
In September 2005, in the course of the injunction proceedings, I requested my solicitors to write to the AGS outlining my position. I requested that my situation be referred to the Minister with a view that the Australian Government Solicitor be instructed to refrain from pursuing its claim against me.
I enclose herewith a copy of the letter that my solicitors sent to the AGS, together with the medical report that was referred to in that letter.
I do not know what transpired as a result of that letter.
The Current Position
The Bankruptcy Notice issued by the Australian Government Solicitor demands payment of $380,000 by 17 October 2006. I presume that if that sum is not paid the Australian Government Solicitor will issue a petition against me with a view to having me declared bankrupt.
I do not know if the two television stations will join in those proceedings, but to date neither of them have made demands against me for costs. I believe that if the Commonwealth were to withdraw its demand the two television stations would not pursue me.
My current position is as follows:
• I have a house at St Andrews in Victoria. It is my home and a place where I am trying to re-establish my practice as a counsellor. The house is valued at about $500,000, but is subject to a mortgage of nearly $130,000.
• I previously had a holiday home at Coronet Bay in Victoria. This was sold in August 2005 for $190,000. Those funds were frozen by the Commonwealth as part of its court proceedings and are currently in a solicitor’s trust account in Melbourne.
• There is a balance of about $30,000 held by the State Crown being the balance of court costs due to me. The State, however, is claiming $17,000 of that sum.
• Overall I have spent over $380,000 in legal fees and have no money in the bank. All of my personal financial resources have gone into the litigation over the last fifteen years. I have less than $40,000 in a superannuation fund.
As a result of the last fifteen years I remain shattered and confused. I have ten years of my working life left, but with no realistic prospect of obtaining fulltime work or employment.
If the bankruptcy proceedings continue I will certainly lose my house and everything that I have worked for over the years.
With the limited finances that I have I would prefer to attempt to rebuild my career as a counsellor and attempt to retain my health and my dignity. I do not want to lose my home and become reliant on Centrelink payments.
Although the Commonwealth was excused from liability by the Full Court, there is no doubt that its officers were involved in the preparation of the report that ultimately was found to be grossly defamatory and which ruined my career. Although the television stations were involved in the defamatory conduct they have exercised clemency and have not to date pursued their claims for costs against me. It is only the Commonwealth that has adopted a relentless approach to have me ruined.
In the circumstances, therefore, I am again asking for clemency with the request that you intervene and instruct your department to refrain from pursuing its claim for legal costs.
I have forwarded a copy of this letter to the Australian Government Solicitor with the request that it take no further bankruptcy proceedings pending your consideration of my position.
I would be most appreciative of any assistance that you are able to afford.
I remain yours sincerely
The Hon Philip Ruddock MP