Adelaide woman wins marathon defamation case against Channel Seven

An Adelaide woman has won an epic legal battle against Channel Seven over a Today Tonight episode that depicted her as a welfare cheat.

Sep 30, 2019, updated Sep 30, 2019

The episode, which aired in 2011, depicted Malgorzata Barbara Poniatowska as having defrauded and cheated Centrelink of $20,000 in single-parent benefits while working for Adelaide building company Hickinbotham, and having avoided prosecution by finding a loophole in social security law.

Poniatowska has been on a rollercoaster ride through the South Australian legal system for more than a decade.

In 2008, three years before the Today Tonight story aired, Poniatowska was charged with 17 counts of obtaining a financial advantage by omission.

She maintained her innocence and foreshadowed that she would plead not guilty but, on the eve of her hearing in 2009, accepted legal advice to plead guilty instead. (In a separate case that same year, the Federal Court awarded Poniatowska $466,000 in damages for a sexual harassment and sex discrimination case against Hickinbotham Homes.)

Poniatowska soon recanted her guilty plea and appealed her conviction, successfully: the Supreme Court found the charges had been “misconceived”.

Then, the Director of Public Prosecutions asked the High Court of Australia for leave to appeal the decision.

The High Court rejected the DPP’s application on the morning of an October day in 2011.

That evening, the offending story ran on Today Tonight.

Poniatowska sued Channel Seven for defamation.

The broadcaster successfully argued it had several defences for broadcasting the story and the Supreme Court dismissed her case.

Poniatowska then appealed that decision to the Full Court of the Supreme Court.

On Friday, the Full Court ruled in Poniatowska’s favour.

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In a unanimous judgment penned by Justice Malcolm Blue, it found that Channel Seven had failed to prove she was guilty of fraud.

Moreover, Blue found Channel Seven had failed to establish other defamation defences, including “fair comment”.

“The defence of fair comment did not arise because the relevant imputation was a statement of fact rather than comment” the judgement reads.

“In any event, the defence of fair comment was not established and the Judge erred to the extent that he held that it was.”

Agreeing to the ruling, Chief Justice Chris Kourakis wrote that “the (defamation trial) Judge relied on Ms Poniatowska’s guilty pleas to conclude that she dishonestly obtained the parenting payments without considering the whole of the evidence”.

“The Judge erred in finding that the guilty plea and the failure to oppose the facts alleged by the prosecution was ‘sufficient to establish that Ms Poniatowska committed fraud with the conviction only being set aside because of the failure of the prosecution to establish an essential element of the offence’”.

Damages have yet to be assessed and the Court will hear arguments from the parties on the matter.

InDaily contacted Poniatowska’s solicitors for comment, but has not received a response.

A Channel Seven spokesperson told InDaily “the matter is not finalised (so) at this stage, we are not able to comment” and declined to say whether the broadcaster would appeal.

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