Esther Rockett (centre) leaves Sydney Supreme Court with solicitor Stewart O'Connell and barrister Tom Molomby after a December, 2018 hearing on an application for costs in the failed defamation case brought against her by Universal Medicine leader Serge Benhayon.
Esther Rockett (centre) leaves Sydney Supreme Court with solicitor Stewart O'Connell and barrister Tom Molomby after a December, 2018 hearing on an application for costs in the failed defamation case brought against her by Universal Medicine leader Serge Benhayon. Liana Turner

Decision pending on conduct of 'cult' leader's lawyer

UPDATE 4.27pm: A COURT has heard submissions on whether or not a Northern Rivers law firm should be referred to a disciplinary body.

Justice Julia Lonergan today heard submissions before the Sydney Supreme Court regarding the lawyer for Universal Medicine founder Serge Benhayon.

Mr Benhayon unsuccessfully sued blogger and former client Esther Rockett over a host of defamatory statements in a civil trial last year.

His lawyer, Paula Fletcher of Mullumbimby-based Universal Law, wrote several letters to Ms Rockett during proceedings which Justice Lonergan raised concerns about in a previous court judgment in February.

It's understood the hearing spanned several hours.

Justice Lonergan has reserved her judgment on whether Universal Law should be referred to the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner.

 

Original story: A COURT will hear submissions on whether action should be taken against the solicitor for Universal Medicine founder Serge Benhayon.

Mr Benhayon unsuccessfully sued blogger and former client Esther Rockett over a host of defamatory statements in a civil trial last year.

The Supreme Court jury found most of those statements were true, including that Mr Benhayon was "the leader of a socially harmful cult" and "a charlatan".

In handing down her findings in an application for costs in February, Justice Julia Lonergan set the matter down for submissions on why she "should not refer Universal Law to the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner for investigation".

These submissions will be heard today.

In an affidavit previously tendered to the court, Ms Rockett laid out a sequence of events involving Universal Law solicitor Paula Fletcher.

Ms Fletcher represented Mr Benhayon in the failed NSW defamation case and separately represented Ray Karam and Caroline Raphael in a defamation claim before the District Court in Brisbane.

The Queensland proceedings - in which Mr Benhayon was not a party - were filed on December 22, 2016 and were dismissed in November last year.

Justice Lonergan said she did not know whether this law firm had "any affiliation" with Universal Medicine, Mr Benhayon's Goonellabah-based complementary health business which offers such services as "esoteric breast massage".

But she raised particular concerns about the firm's actions during the time of the death of Ms Rockett's father, including a 31-page letter, sent on the day of Mr Rockett's father's funeral.

Ms Rockett's elderly father became seriously ill in August 2017.

On August 23, Ms Fletcher wrote to her regarding the Queensland proceedings, pushing for a hearing date to be secured within 10 days.

According to Ms Rockett's affidavit, Ms Rockett explained her father was critically unwell and that she had been unable to reach her Queensland legal team.

After her father passed away soon afterwards, Ms Rockett confirmed this with Ms Fletcher in the interest of pausing legal proceedings and related communication until after the funeral.

According to her affidavit, Ms Rockett asked Ms Fletcher to keep details about her father's passing confidential.

On September 1, the Ms Fletcher replied, saying: "It is not open to you unilaterally to impose upon, or enforce against our clients and our firm, a gag on the disclosure of information".

"Our clients future use of the information (if any) is a matter for our clients," she wrote.

According to Ms Rockett's affidavit, Ms Fletcher then threatened to file an application for a finding in the Queensland matter if Ms Rockett did not supply details of her legal counsel within five days.

On September 6, Ms Rockett supplied details of her lawyer and asked that no unnecessary correspondence be sent to her until the week after he father's funeral.

Despite this, she received a lengthy letter, which included "personal insults", the day of the funeral.

"There is no place for any such personal remarks and insults in any professional correspondence in legal proceedings," Justice Lonergan said in her February judgment.

"Solicitors have ethical duties and obligations ... (to) be honest and courteous in all dealings in the course of legal practice (and) avoid any compromise to their integrity and professional independence."

The Office of the Legal Services Commissioner is an independent statutory body which deals with complaints about lawyers.

It has the power to take disciplinary action against legal practitioners.