'Shock, relief' after Universal Medicine defamation trial
THE lawyer for a Byron Bay woman who last week claimed victory in a defamation case brought by the leader of a Goonellabah-based group says he's confident a further hearing won't change the outcome.
Solicitor Stewart O'Connell from Sydney-based O'Brien Criminal & Civil Solicitors said the jury's verdict came as a "big relief" to his client, Esther Rockett.
Universal Medicine leader Serge Benhayon had brought defamation proceedings against Ms Rockett.
Last Monday, the jury ruled in Ms Rockett's favour.
This included agreeing comments the group was a "socially harmful cult" were substantiated by Ms Rockett's truth defence.
"It took a little while to sink in," Mr O'Connell said.
"You have to remember that this has been something that's been hanging over her head for three years.
"For it to all ... come to an end was a bit of a shock and also a big relief."
Mr O'Connell said this case was "particularly, unusually long" for a defamation trial.
"From the time of filing the complaint to the time of trial, we're talking three years," he said.
The trial itself spanned a month, and this wasn't the only action that had been brought against Ms Rockett.
"There were also matters taken against her in Brisbane by associates of Mr Benhayon," he said.
"In Queensland, if you lose a hearing in relation to a preliminary legal matter you have to pay the costs up front.
"As a result of that she was bankrupted early on in this whole thing."
Mr O'Connell said she had secured their advice on a no win, no fee basis.
"It was only then she got the legal help that she desperately needed," he said.
"She hung in by herself up until that point."
He said the overwhelming ruling from the jury in her favour was an "enormous" win for Ms Rockett.
"She's been totally vindicated," he said.
"Essentially, there were 60 imputations.
"16 of those, the jury found weren't even made out at all.
"Of the remaining 44, they found 38 were true.
"That, in a defamation case of this type, is a huge win."
The jury, which handed down its decision on October 15, found some defamatory imputations made by Ms Rockett were not covered by her defences of truth or honest opinion, including a comment that Mr Benhayon was "delusional".
But they did, with those imputations, find Ms Rockett was not "actuated by malice" and that her actions were "reasonable in all of the circumstances" and that the comments could be covered under qualified privilege.
This will be further considered in a two-day hearing in December by the trial judge.
Mr O'Connell said they were confident the outcome seen last week would be upheld.
"There are further aspects that the court does need to consider but we are confident that the outcome won't be changed," he said.
He said costs would also be sought at the December hearing.
In a statement, Ms Rockett's legal team said the jury's verdict was a "comprehensive victory" and "a victory for free speech".
Ms Rockett said: "myself and my supporters would like to thank the jury for their diligent and conscientious service throughout the trial".
"It is vital that Australians are able to exercise their lawful right to raise concerns.
"It is also a timely reminder that we need proper regulation of health care providers."
Mr Benhayon may appeal the verdict, but The Northern Star understands no appeal has been filed with the Supreme Court thus far.
His lawyer, Kieran Smark, declined to comment on the case.