It’s a good thing Kerry Stokes has deep pockets.
As the pre-trial hearings in Victoria Cross recipient and alleged war criminal Ben Roberts-Smith’s defamation case drag on, the legal bills for the billionaire media baron are piling up.
Stokes is backing Roberts-Smith in the fight against allegations made by Nine (formerly Fairfax Media), with a blockbuster Federal Court trial due to start on June 7. And with a judge agreeing the trial is likely to stretch for between eight and 10 weeks, insiders say Roberts-Smith’s legal costs could quickly hit $5 million, with at least $3.5 million likely to have been spent on lawyers and barristers so far.
Last year, the AFR’s Rear Window column reported that the Stokes’ private investment vehicle, Australian Capital Equity (ACE), had extended a line of credit to Roberts-Smith to help fund his legal action against the Nine newspapers. At the time, it was drawn down $1.9 million.
Then there was this exclusive story in The Age/SMH last month claiming that Stokes had funded Roberts-Smith’s defence out of the Stokes-chaired Seven West Media’s public company funds. Seven says the loan to ACM has been repaid.
The money was given to Roberts-Smith to fight allegations before the military watchdog, and to pay for his defamation proceedings.
But with a landmark trial involving more than 70 witnesses, multiple jurisdictions and complex national security laws, Roberts-Smith is going to need much more than $1.9 million to pay for his defamation action, likely to be one of the biggest in Australian history.
Of course it’s only speculation as to what the total cost will be. But with two QCs and two junior counsels representing him in the Federal Court, his legal team alone could cost $250,000 a week. And that’s on top of the cost of lawyers throughout multiple investigations by the Australian Federal Police and the inspector-general of the Australian Defence Force.
It might be a drop in the ocean for Stokes, but minority shareholders at Seven West Media could have some concerns their money could be lent out again.
*This story has been amended for clarity.