One thing is certain after yesterday’s revelation that Gina Rinehart’s daughter Hope Welker has launched a legal claim against her own mother — it is going be an awkward Christmas at the Rinehart household this year.

Details of the legal action remain unknown, beyond the fact that the case has been classified as an intellectual property matter in the equity division of the New South Wales Supreme Court, before Justice Paul Brereton.

The case may remain shrouded in mystery for a bit longer — at 3pm today, Rinehart’s legal team, led by Alan Sullivan QC, will try to restrict third-party access to the case because of the potential “impact on commercial negotiations”.

But in some ways the exact details don’t matter. That the daughter of Australia’s richest person could launch legal action against her mother suggests a breakdown in relations that could threaten Rinehart’s $10 billion mining empire.

The question is: how did it come to this?

Little is known about Hope Welker, who along with her twin sister, Gina, is a product of Rinehart’s second marriage to American lawyer Frank Rinehart.

Welker has played no public role in the Rinehart family company Hancock Prospecting, although her 29-year-old husband Ryan Welker says on his LinkedIn profile that he was commercial adviser to the company and worked on its Alpha Coal project in Queensland and its Roy Hill iron ore mine in the Pilbara.

Indeed, Ryan Welker appeared to have been welcomed into the family fold. Late last year he was appointed to the board of Mineral Resources, a Perth-based mining company in which Hancock Prospecting has a small stake.

That Gina Rinehart would allow a dispute with her daughter to deteriorate to the point where legal action was launched is also astounding.

Most wealthy families are surrounded by a small army of outside advisers such as lawyers and accountants and one of their jobs is to ensure that family disputes are sorted out.

It is unclear whether Gina has this sort of network around her, but she does like to keep her management teams small. The website for Hancock Prospecting lists just four managers and directors outside Rinehart herself — it’s a tiny team for a business with billions of dollars of projects under way.

What is well known is that Rinehart never, ever backs down from a legal fight. Indeed, this is one of the great contradictions about her business style — while she is private to the point of being reclusive, she has been involved in a series of messy, public legal battles for most of the past three decades.

She waged a legendary 11-year battle for control of the estate of her late father Lang Hancock during the 1990s and in March 2010 lost a nine-year legal stoush with Angela Bennett and Michael Wright, the decedents of Lang Hancock’s business partner Peter Wright.

There have been numerous spats with family members too. She fell out with father Lang Hancock, who disapproved of her marriage to Frank Rinehart, and then again when he married Rose Porteus.

She fell out with son John in 2007, the result of which was that he changed his name by deed poll to John Hancock (he has now been welcomed back into the family, according to reports).

Rinehart’s grooming of daughter Bianca as her apparent successor also looks to have gone awry — last year her daughter moved to Darwin with her husband and new baby and does not hold a formal role in Hancock Prospecting’s management structure.

Exactly who might succeed Rinehart now is clearly very much in question, as is the potential impact of Welker’s legal action on Rinehart’s $10 billion empire. The sheer amount of money flowing into Hancock Prospecting from the mining boom means any one legal action is unlikely to do too much damage.

But surely the ugly sight of daughter taking on mother in the Supreme Court will take a personal toll on Rinehart and the rest of the family — and set the scene for a giant brawl when it comes time to divide up Gina’s estate.

*This article was first published at Smart Company

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey