17 lawyers used to defend govt in James Ashby case
THE Australian Government Solicitor used 17 lawyers in defending the civil action brought against the Commonwealth by James Ashby, a Senate estimates hearing has been told.
Under intense questioning from shadow attorney-general George Brandis, AGS CEO Ian Govey revealed that 13 lawyers, on top of the four listed on the public record, were used to fight the action.
Mr Ashby, who claims he was sexually harassed while working for former parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper, reached a $50,000 settlement with the Commonwealth late last month.
He is also suing Mr Slipper for sexual harassment, with the matter still before the Federal Court.
In an at times heated hearing, Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who was a senior lawyer with the AGS before entering politics, twice described as "extraordinary" the number of solicitors used on the Ashby matter.
"Can I just say, Mr Govey, that's a lot of lawyers.
"I've never heard, in all my 20-year association with the AGS, that number of lawyers involved in a Commonwealth case.
Mr Govey conceded it was a "very significant number".
"But, of course, this was a very significant matter and it raised a range of issues," Mr Govey said in reply.
This drew a sharp response from Senator Fierravanti-Wells.
"But it settled for $50,000, Mr Govey. I was involved in matters that settled for a million dollars where it was me and perhaps a paralegal," she said.
Senator Brandis then highlighted a price fixing matter he worked on in the mid-1990s.
Despite the matter lasting three years and settling for $26 million, Senator Brandis said just three lawyers - two from the AGS's office and one from the Trade Productivity Commission - worked on the case.
"Three lawyers for $26 million over three years in a very big case against 17 lawyers over six months for a $50,000 case does seem to be a bit disproportionate," Senator Brandis said.
Mr Govey said it was not an "accurate characterisation" to say 17 lawyers were used to arrive at the settlement with Mr Ashby.
"I wouldn't want to give you the impression that these lawyers were all working in relation to the settlement of the matter for $50,000. There were a range of related issues which they were involved in," Mr Govey said.
"It's also important to note ... that some of these lawyers would have had a very minor involvement."
Senator Brandis said the revelation 17 lawyers had worked on the case explained, in part, why a more than $700,000 legal bill was racked up in just six months.
It also emerged during the marathon hearing that Julian Burnside QC was paid $4800 a day to represent the Commonwealth in the matter.
Mr Govey and Attorney-General's Department secretary Roger Wilkins were grilled for more than four hours, mostly by Senator Brandis, on a range of issues relating to the Ashby case.
The senator's request to ask questions of the lawyers involved in case was denied by Mr Govey, who admitted to the estimates hearing his involvement in the matter had been limited to "ad hoc" briefings.