Lawyers from three of Australia’s premier legal firms will appear before the Federal Court in Melbourne today to argue that they are not involved in a cover-up on behalf of their client, the beleaguered wheat exporter AWB.

The firms — Blake Dawson Waldron, Minter Ellison and Arnold Bloch Leibler — are together in possession of 1240 secret documents related to AWB’s kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime.

AWB claims legal professional privilege over the documents and refuses to hand them to the Cole inquiry investigating the kickbacks scandal.

Some of the documents have been with the lawyers since 2003. Legal professional privilege is designed to apply only to legal advice — not to any document sent to a lawyer.

Opposition legal affairs spokeswoman Nicola Roxon said the Federal Court case may provide ”a very good and interesting insight into how big clients use lawyers”.

”This is a very serious thing,” she said. ”Legal professional privilege is there for the public good. We don’t want people to use privilege to cover up their mistakes, or protect themselves from an inquiry.

”We need good lawyers to stand up and say: this is not what privilege is for. If those documents weren’t honestly produced for legal advice, they should not be privileged.”

AWB previously tried to claim privilege over a draft apology that was produced for public relations purposes. The Federal Court dismissed the claim and commissioner Terence Cole made the document public. Now the fate of 1240 documents, many of them multiple pages, is in the balance. The tussle over the documents has held up the Cole inquiry. A report was initially due on March 31, then June 30, but the deadline was recently extended to September 29.

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