GM cost appeal on hold

25 Mar, 2015 04:11 PM
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Kojonup farmer Michael Baxter.
We’d prefer that didn’t happen but it’s no big deal.
Kojonup farmer Michael Baxter.

AN appeal on costs of $803,989 awarded against WA organic farmer Steve Marsh in the case against his neighbour Mike Baxter has been placed on hold.

A controversial move today in the Court of Appeal for the West Australian Supreme Court saw the case adjourned, to deal with an order to ascertain whether Mr Baxter’s defence has been financially supported by GM-seed supplier Monsanto or the Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA).

PGA Grains Committee president John Snooke said he was unable to comment extensively on specifics of the new development as his group was now awaiting official notification from the Court on the order.

But he said, “We see this as nothing more than a desperate move by Steve Marsh’s lawyers”.

Mr Snooke said the PGA would however make a more detailed comment once the official court notification was received and assessed.

Mr Baxter’s lawyer - Bradley Bayley Legal partner Brian Bradley – said the Court was looking to clarify “suspicion” about media comment and other statements made by the PGA and others about the farm lobby’s support for the defence via a “fighting fund”.

“We’d prefer that didn’t happen but it’s no big deal,” he said.

Monsanto was also contacted about the Court order but declined to comment, as did Mr Marsh’s lawyers Slater & Gordon.

The cost decision was handed down in September last year following the Court’s overall decision in May on the landmark property rights trial which rejected the Marshes’ attempts to sue Mr Baxter for alleged GM “contamination”.

The Marshes had claimed $85,000 in alleged damages after GM canola swathes were detected on their organic farm in late 2010, sparking organic decertification on about 70 per cent of the 478 hectare Kojonup farm.

But Justice Ken Martin’s 150-page judgement rejected assertions GM canola was unsafe in dismissing both the Marshes' causes of action in common law negligence and private nuisance.

The 26-page judgment on the costs decision handed down by Justice Martin also lifted the limits on the scale normally used by the Court to determine applicable costs, given the complexity of the legal case.

Critical to the latest development, that original cost judgment criticised an application made within the plaintiff’s cost submission, seeking to disclose information regarding arrangements surrounding Mr Baxter’s liability for any costs claimed in the court action.

The application from Mr Marsh’s legal representative Mark Walter sought to reveal any arrangements between Mr Baxter and his lawyers, crop insurance company, the PGA and Monsanto.

“To allow the plaintiffs' application for disclosure by Mr Baxter in respect of any agreements from the PGA, Monsanto or Mr Baxter's crop insurer would, on my assessment, very much amount to the sanctioning of an impermissible fishing expedition,” the cost judgment said.

Mr Bradley said today’s Court order did not force Mr Baxter to disclose details of payments relating to his crop insurer.

Mr Marsh’s campaign has questioned the safety of GM crops and was supported by the Safe Food Foundation (SFF) which raised $750,000 through public donations which was disclosed at the time of trial.

However, fundraising efforts have continued amid concerns the Kojonup organic wheat farmer may lose his property over the conclusive judgment in the long-running dispute.

Mr Baxter told reporters today outside Court that he respected the Court’s decision and lawyers would now go through various formalities to produce the required documents.

He said he expected six months before a decision was handed down on the appeal.

An appeal on the original decision by Justice Martin was heard in the Court on Monday and Tuesday this week.

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FarmOnline
Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media

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