ASK one of Australia’s top Queen Counsel Tom Hughes how it is like to battle with Perth socialite Rose Hancock-Porteous and he will probably quote her own words “like a cornered cat, snarling and lashing out against its perpetrator”.
Indeed he knows it quite well because he was one of the so-called perpetrators when he cross-examined her on behalf of her step-daughter Gina Rinehart – a court battle which finally ended in a stunning victory for Rose.
The exchanges during the cross-examination between Hughes, a highly-qualified professional lawyer, and former Filipina maid Rose, who married her multi-millionaire boss Lang Hancock before he died 10 years later, were the highlight of that case.
She was never short of words. Her impromptu expressions such as “Gina would be happy if I were (to be) thrown into the river of parasites and be eaten up to death” and “I’ve been imprisoned for seven years in the bottle not knowing where I’m headed for” fascinated those who heard them.
Hughes was undoubtedly flabbergasted by her choice of words. He had never seen an adversary like her with words that few could match.
After nearly a decade of going in and out of Perth courts, Rose has finally received the legal bill from Melbourne law firm Slater & Gordon for more than A$14mil.
She instantly saw red and is now preparing for another showdown – this time with her former lawyers.
“I’m ready to fight them,” she declares. “We are willing and able to pay them but we will not pay over and above what is correct and right. They are being greedy.”
Supporting her, Willie Porteous (her present husband) says: “The litigation has taken its toll on my wife’s health but she will not be kowtowing to Slater & Gordon’s demands.
“Their account is so outrageous that it beggars belief. We’ve already made them an offer but they want something, which is totally unrealistic.”
The dispute, obviously, is whether the legal fee is excessive and whether she has been told that it would cost her that much as Slater & Gordon managed all her litigation against Gina, Australia’s richest woman, from 1997 through to settlement in September 2003.
The feud between the two women ended when they agreed to drop all litigation against each other after Rose won against Gina’s claim that Hancock’s gifts of A$20mil of assets to Rose was paid from Hancock companies’ funds, which are now controlled by his only daughter.
The assets include Rose’s palatial riverfront mansion Prix d’Amour, built almost similar to the one in the blockbuster movie Gone With The Wind, a luxury holiday home in Florida, commercial properties in Perth and Sydney, and a Bentley in which Rose is driven around.
Allegations made at the trial, including fraudulent marriage documents, followed by other allegations of murder, black magic, lust, romance, drugs, syringes and intrigue at an inquest on Hancock’s death, were like the script of an American TV soapie series Days Of Our Lives.
Not surprisingly, the local television stations had billed the court proceeding as “the greatest show on earth”.
However, the judge dismissed Gina’s claims, saying that the loans from the companies’ funds had been offset by credit balances in Hancock’s loan account arising from inter-company shares dealing totalling A$43.2mil.
In a writ filed in the Supreme Court in Melbourne last week, Slater & Gordon claimed Rose signed a deed in January acknowledging she owed them A$13.3mil in legal fees as at Dec 31, 2004.
It is claimed that she had also agreed to a time-table to pay the amount in instalments by June 30 but she had failed to comply.
The firm now claims A$14.07mil but refuses to elaborate on the details. It says that the amount is now due and payable immediately.
Rose countered this claims with her own writ, filed in the Supreme Court in Perth last week, seeking that an agreement with Slater & Gordon dating back to July 1997 be set aside.
She alleges that Slater & Gordon had originally agreed to act for her “in exchange for a percentage of the property she retained and recovered from the Rinehart interests”.
That agreement was altered to a more conventional hourly rate arrangement in March 2003 when Slater & Gordon registered a mortgage over Prix d’Amour, says her new lawyer Jeremy Giles.
The writ accuses Slater & Gordon of engaging in “misleading and deceptive conduct, breach of fiduciary duty and has procured agreements” with Rose “under duress”.
Rose wants the court to remove the mortgage because she plans to demolish Prix d’Amour and subdivide the land into 10 residential blocks, each worth about A$3.7mil.
She is prepared to lodge the A$14mil from the land sale proceeds in court until the dispute is settled.
Slater & Gordon’s spokesman refuses to comment, saying that they would speak in court when the matter comes up for hearing.
So far, Rose seems to have come out looking good in whatever cases she is involved and whatever arguments she gets into.
But will her luck run out this time in the battle with her former lawyers?
That’s the question that all those people attracted once again by her extroverted personality and extraordinary articulation are now pondering.
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