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who is the Amber Harrison judge?

Seven West Media legal director Bruce McWilliam

At 2pm today, Justice John Sackar will deliver his judgment in the titanic trial between Seven West Media and Amber Harrison.

Given his record of rulings against Harrison thus far and some of the comments he has made during the case, most observers are expecting that Seven West Media will be well pleased with what the judge has to say.

So who is Justice John Sackar?

Well, he loves single malt whisky, is a talented mimic, collects animal skeletons, breeds cattle, was a defamation specialist for many years at the bar and is both a grandfather, courtesy of three adult children, and the parent of a 12-year-old boy from his second marriage.

How do we know all this? From the fascinating speeches delivered at his swearing-in ceremony in 2011.

If you read this 11-page transcript of that august occasion, it is clear that Sackar is well connected right across the Sydney legal community and also has strong media associations, having acted in a large number of defamation actions in the 1980s and 1990s, along with the Super League battle.

His connections to Seven West Media legal director Bruce McWilliam — the person Harrison blames more than anyone for the “lawfare” that has been waged against her — were never mentioned during the first two directions hearings. However, the judge did bring it up during round three, on April 6, and his disclosures were reported as follows by The Australian’s Margin Call columnists:

“Before getting into the hearing on the arguments about whether or not the case should be transferred to the Federal Court in Melbourne (as Harrison’s Julian Burnside-led legal team would like), Sackar disclosed his relationship with McWilliam, a fairly active legal type who is well known to many in the local legal and email community.

“Sackar said he had known McWilliam for years, although he added they did not hang out socially.

“Sackar also noted that he had done some academic research with McWilliam’s better half, Nicky, an accomplished lawyer in her own right, who — if you can believe it — specialises in the mediation of legal disputes. Now there’s a thought.

“The McWilliam-Sackar connection was disclosed because, in addition to overseeing Seven’s legal strategy from the company’s red-brick Pyrmont bunker, McWilliam could be called to give evidence in the Supreme Court if it is heard in Sackar’s court in July.”

It is rare for judges to recuse themselves from a case due to a conflict of interest, let alone maintain a public register of conflict of interest declarations as occurs at some institutions, such as the City of Melbourne.

[Mayne: what Amber Harrison actually, finally, told the Supreme Court]

It is also rare for lawyers to seek a judicial recusal because you don’t want to get on the wrong side of a judge by accusing them of not recognising their own conflict of interest. If the application fails, you’re potentially stuck with an angry judge.

Harrison’s legal team, before they were instructed to fold, might have explored this option but never actually sought a recusal, and she finished up unrepresented in a trial, something that rarely helps in the Supreme Court. The expectation was that folding would mean no trial, but Seven pushed on in an attempt to destroy Harrison once and for all.

As a keen consumer of the media coverage around the Tim Worner matter and a defamation specialist in his day, Sackar will be acutely aware of his ability to make or break reputations with this afternoon’s judgment.

If he were to say something about “lawfare”, a blokey corporate culture at Seven West Media, the court’s time being wasted, a failure of the parties to settle, the hypocrisy of media companies attacking free speech and the needless expenditure of shareholder funds, it would not be a good day for Bruce McWilliam, Kerry Stokes or Tim Worner.

But don’t hold your breath for that!

Seven’s has been employing hardball negotiating tactics in recent months. The company felt no urgent need to settle and didn’t mind throwing large sums at the fight knowing there would be little prospect of any return on its financial investment.

Indeed, Seven even had an unrelated win in front of Sackar less than two months ago, as Fairfax reported in the following terms at the time:

“An attempt to block Channel Seven from airing new revelations about accused drug mule Cassandra Sainsbury has failed in the Supreme Court.

“Ms Sainsbury’s lawyers were seeking to stop Sunday Night from airing an exclusive interview with Ms Sainsbury’s fiance Scott Broadbridge, however their application for an injunction was dismissed by Justice John Sackar following a closed hearing on Sunday.”

Having refused to injunct Sunday Night, one thing we do know about today is that Sackar will grant an injunction restraining Harrison from talking about Seven West Media because she’s consented to it.

One interested observer in today’s judgment will be Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a close friend of Bruce McWilliam and someone who has known Sackar a very long time. Indeed, their law firm, Turnbull McWilliam, used to brief barrister Sackar on media matters, and the history of the Turnbull relationship goes all the way back to Malcolm’s father, if you can believe this extract in Paddy Manning’s biography of the PM, Born to rule:

“Turnbull quickly decided that being a junior solicitor at a big firm was not for him, and went to the bar, encouraged by his father-in-law. Bruce Turnbull’s connections also helped: Bruce was good friends with John Sackar, then an up-and-coming junior barrister. The two men were part of a close-knit running group that often jogged together in Centennial Park, along with Bruce Gyngell, barrister Henric Nicholas, and prestige estate agent Bill Bridges.”

There was also this, according to Manning:

“Like any barrister starting out, Turnbull took whatever work he could get. With his notoriety as a journalist and his connections with Packer, and under the guiding hand of Tom Hughes, Turnbull was kept busy. He read under Sackar and Peter Hely, the then leading junior barrister in Sydney, and both did what they could to funnel work through from an extensive list of media clients.”

Given that Turnbull and McWilliam ran their own law firm together in the 1980s, it is clear Sackar has known the PM and his best mate for more than 30 years. By way of contrast, Sackar hasn’t met or seen foster mum Harrison, who never once set foot in his court.

[Mayne: Seven’s legal eagle lays down suppressing fire, but Amber Harrison is resolute]

The Bruce McWilliam CV, as proudly recounted by his primary school in Dapto, has him first studying law at Sydney University in 1974, whereas Sackar completed his studies at Sydney University in 1972.

However, with his $100 million property portfolio, McWilliam is one of the richest practising lawyers in Sydney, and he’s remained closely connected and supportive of his old law school. 

In an email to Crikey on Friday, the current Sydney University law school dean, Joellen Riley, outlined McWilliam’s impressive contributions to his old university, which have included, starting “a very long time ago”, being “chair of various iterations of the University of Sydney Law School’s ‘advisory board’ — a group of committed alumni who have generously given time and advice to us on matters of professional and community engagement, and fund raising”.

Plenty of money has flowed too, given Riley also noted that “Mr McWilliam and his wife Nicky have been generous donors to the Sydney Law School in the past (particularly as patrons of the Bruce McWilliam Visiting Chair in Commercial Law)”.

Peter Fray

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