Former Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella's defamation case against Benalla Ensign newspaper to be heard at Wangaratta rather than Melbourne

CAMPAIGN TRAIL: Indi candidates Sophie Mirabella (Liberal) and incumbent Cathy McGowan (Independent) at a Wangaratta forum during last year's election.
CAMPAIGN TRAIL: Indi candidates Sophie Mirabella (Liberal) and incumbent Cathy McGowan (Independent) at a Wangaratta forum during last year's election.

AN argument that former politician Sophie Mirabella would not receive a fair trial in Wangaratta has been rejected by a court official deciding where her defamation action will be heard.

County Court judicial registrar James Gurry on Tuesday granted an application to have Mrs Mirabella’s case against the Benalla Ensign newspaper transferred from Melbourne to Wangaratta.

The decision means a trial in the matter, which is still subject to mediation, would probably be held at a Wangaratta sitting next April.

Mrs Mirabella alleges she was defamed by the Ensign in an article which claimed she, as the then Liberal candidate for Indi in April 2016, had pushed rival, incumbent MP Cathy McGowan, out of the way of a photo opportunity at an aged care centre.

Lawyers for the Ensign and its editor Libby Price had applied for a relocation on the basis the alleged defamation occurred in the North East so therefore it should be decided by a local jury.

Mrs Mirabella’s barrister argued against the transferral with one of his concerns being the possibility the former Liberal MP may not get a just resolution in Wangaratta.

Mr Gurry rejected that point, noting Mrs Mirabella’s 12 years as the North East’s federal MP would have drawn backing.

“The plaintiff has pleaded that she was a well-known public figure within the electorate and in the national media,” Mr Gurry said.

“A person who has been a local member for a number of years and prominent in the community would probably have both supporters and detractors.

“However, the plaintiff herself says she is well known in the national media.”

In conclusion, Mr Gurry said: “There is no doubt this was a local event and as I am not persuaded that the plaintiff would not receive a fair trial, I consider it appropriate that the proceedings be transferred to be heard at Wangaratta.”

Mr Gurry also cited previous court cases where Supreme Court judges in NSW and Victoria had ruled defamation actions emerging in regional areas should be heard in those communities.

Mrs Mirabella’s barrister Toby Mullen had argued witnesses in the case, including his client and Liberal MP Ken Wyatt who was a special guest at the aged care centre, lived in Western Australia and it was convenient for them to have the matter heard in Melbourne.

Mr Gurry downplayed that argument, noting wherever the trial was held witnesses would have to travel.