“Everyone is equal before the law,” warned a Federal Court judge in rejecting Peter Dutton’s claim for indemnity costs against a Twitter user he sued in the “expensive” forum.
The Defence Minister sued refugee advocate Shane Bazzi for defamation and was awarded $35,000 in damages following a six-word tweet in February that said Mr Dutton “is a rape apologist”.
The Queensland MP continued to pursue Mr Bazzi for his full legal bill, but this was reduced by Justice Richard White in the Federal Court on Wednesday.
Justice White ordered Mr Bazzi pay Mr Dutton’s costs on a scale equitable as if the lawsuit was filed in a Queensland magistrates court, querying why he had not done so.
Mr Dutton was ordered to pay 50 per cent of Mr Bazzi’s legal costs for Wednesday’s hearing.
Barrister Hamish Clift for Mr Dutton submitted his client’s reputation required the vindication of a nationally recognised court, given his stature and prominent position as a cabinet minister.
But Justice White said the relatively small defamation claim could have been solved in a lower court saving both parties significant expense.
“It would not be appropriate for the court to exercise their discretion more favourably to Mr Dutton simply because of the important public and national office of which he holds,” he said.
“All people are equal before the law irrespective of the positions which they hold.
“Just because it involves a national figure doesn’t mean it’s a matter of national importance.”
Before giving judgment Justice White reminded both parties he had urged settlement months earlier.
Richard Potter SC for Mr Bazzi said his client was served in April a letter of demand that included a threat to continue with legal proceedings regardless of the outcome.
Mr Dutton made another offer “just four working days before the trial was to begin” on September 30, and gave no explanation for the delay.
Justice White said most legal costs had been incurred by that point and found the timing “concerning”.
The Member for Dickson was successful in only one of four pleaded imputations, while his claims for aggravated damages and an injunction, based on Mr Bazzi’s commentary on the case, were rejected.
The since-deleted post contained a link to a 2019 news article quoting Mr Dutton saying some refugee women on Nauru who complained of rape were “trying it on” in order to come to Australia.
Mr Bazzi, through Mr Potter, said he was expressing his honestly held opinion that was based on fact.
But the Federal Court determined the tweet went beyond the facts of the article, which concerned Mr Dutton’s questioning of the bona fides of the women’s claims.
“This is a different subject matter than diminishing the significance of rape, or not treating it seriously when it occurs, or any action which involves excusing rape,” Justice White said in written reasons.
A defence of fair comment on a matter of public interest also failed.
In calculating damages, the judge said it was understandable Mr Dutton was hurt and offended, but that a sense of perspective was required.
The tweet, posted about midnight and receiving about 1220 Twitter “impressions”, was not published in any mainstream media and was deleted shortly after Mr Bazzi heard from Mr Dutton’s lawyer.