Privacy and Family Law - Would the Case of the Prostitute and Billionaire Be Repeated in the Family Court of Australia?
Posted: 17th February 2015
Posted in: News
Posted by: Dean Evans, Partner
Would the Facts in Ashton v Pratt (Prostitute v Billionaire) Be Similarly “Aired” or “Published” after Proceedings in the Family Court of Australia
Yesterday, on our facebook page, we posted about the decision in Ashton v. Pratt No. 2, where Justice Brereton refused prostitute, Madison Ashton’s claim for $5m in trusts for her children, and an annual stipend of more than $560,000 per annum.
Within the Judgment, there was both scandalous and salacious information about Mr Pratt and his relationship with Ashton. What’s more, the information was set out and contained in the public record – a permanent record searchable by everyday citizens and journalists.
Read the Judgment and you will see the following significant summary of evidence from Judge Brereton, concerning a 2005 hotel meeting conducted between a Pratt minder and the prostitute:-
Gray: I am sick and tired of bailing Richard out of these messes. Visy has got special accounts to deal with matters like this.
Ashton: What do you mean, matters like this.
Gray: The family is constantly trying to keep people like you and Shari out of Richard’s life. The company keeps paying for all of Richard’s indiscretions. Millions of dollars have been paid out in the past.
Ashton: I am not asking for anything that I was not promised by Richard.
Gray: I don’t doubt your sincerity but Richard will say anything and will do anything to have people like you in the sack. I don’t deny that Richard has promised what he has said to you and that is why I have been asked to see you. What will it take for you to go away?
Ashton: Whatever I have been promised by Richard. That is all that I want. I don’t want anything else.
Gray: What did Richard promise you?
Ashton: He promised he was going to look after my children by setting up a trust fund of $2.5 million for each of my children until they reach a mature age and claim their entitlement. He was going to give me half a million dollars a year and he was going to pay for my rental apartment or buy me a house in the Eastern suburbs so that I could live with my children and pay me for my business. I think all of this was in my letter to him, except the half a million per year.
Gray: I see. Let me go back to Melbourne. I will have a talk to Richard and see how we can sort this out. But if we do, I want you to sign an agreement with us. Richard may trust you but I have learnt from the past that these kinds of matters can come back and haunt people like Richard.
Ashton: I have no problem with that.
We don’t know about you, but as objective observers, we cringe thinking about the following:-
- The impact of this evidence on Pratt’s family, including his widow and his children and grandchildren;
- The impact of this evidence on Madison Ashton’s children, said in the proceedings to already be the subject of negative behaviour by other children and families where they were schooled and targets of poor conduct by Shari-Lea Hitchcock, a woman involved in another extra-marital Pratt liaison;
- That the public can read about your private affairs and sensitive information;
- That you can be the subject of ridicule for bringing proceedings – and at the end of the day, the Defendant (the Estate of Pratt) did not lead evidence which contradicted Ashton’s version, leaving it largely unchallenged except by reference to documents;
- That your career and friendships will be affected; and
- That your wider social circles, past, present and future, will be greatly impacted.
Happily, within the Family Law Act (Cth) and the Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act (Qld), systems are in place to anonymise proceedings, including that the Judgments which are issued for lawyers and self-represented litigants and those which are available for searching online by the public and any journalists.
Reading a current Judgment issued out of either the Family Court of Australia or the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, sees the names of parties, their children, their towns, business/company names, street names and all like information which might identify them, changed to either an initial or an anonymised name.
In addition, provisions within the Act require that no person publishes any part of proceedings sufficient to identify someone involved in family law or domestic violence proceedings.
What does this mean?
Topically, it means that the salacious and scandalous information which often flows in the Court concerning the relationships between family members and spouses, which is relevant to determining property and parenting cases remains private.
Parties, in the majority of instances (excepting for example, criminal activity being revealed), can give their evidence in a privatised manner, without concern that it will be reported and published in a manner which impacts their later life.
This is precisely why you don’t often read about family law matters in the paper.
When you do happen to come across something in the media, it’s likely, if it names names, to offend the law.
Any person who publishes the information is liable to be prosecuted for an offence.
Unfortunately for the Pratt and Ashton families, that litigation was being conducted pursuant to the law of contract, and was litigated in the Supreme Court. It seems a decision was made by the Pratt family that enough was enough and that they would stamp out the claims of people who might seek a slice of the large pie. Having read the exchange between the Pratt minder, Gray, and Ms Ashton, Gray was certainly indicating there was a need to protect Pratt given certain of his vulnerabilities.
Thanks for reading.