In a shock move, leading law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth have dumped the Catholic Church as a client following the clerical abuse scandals and coverups that have enveloped the Church.
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Corrs Chambers have represented the Catholic Church has earned multiple millions in fees from the Church as it has represented it in the multitude of cases and also helped build the ‘Ellis defence’ that argued that the Church did not exist as a legal entity due to the trust ownership of its assets, thus protecting it from legal claims.
In the case brought by John Ellis, (pictured) a former lawyer who was sexually abused as a 13-year-old alter boy by Father Aidan Duggan, a Corrs solicitor promised in an email to the church’s barristers that they would be “greeted with open arms at the Pearly Gates” for their efforts to thwart future litigants.
The Ellis defence prevented abuse survivors from suing unincorporated organisations including churches and other institutions, was abolished in 2019 after the NSW Government removed a legal road block to such lawsuits.
Father Duggan had died when the appeal was heard and the Archbishop of Sydney was not considered responsible for the actions of his predecessor.
By the time Ellis decided to take legal action, he had no-one to sue.
Corrs Chambers did not respond to questions from The Age to explain the reason for the change of heart other than to say that the law firm would be “transitioning away from undertaking personal injury work”.
“We will be working with the clients affected by this decision to ensure the orderly transition of such matters to new legal advisers. In particular, the firm is committed to ensuring that we protect the interests of our clients,” a Corrs spokesman said.
However one suggestion from a former employee of the firm was that the decision was prompted by a reputational concern by Corr Chambers.
“I think many of the partners are increasingly uncomfortable with this kind of work and it’s no longer only about writing fees,” the former Corrs lawyer said.
“The Catholic Church has obviously been hammered by all of these scandals. I’m sure they respect the church’s right to legal representation, but I think they’ve decided to forge a different path. I do think it’s a bit strange that they haven’t articulated the decision.”
Australian media also say that the Corrs decision to cut ties with the church has also raised questions about the future of prominent partner Richard Leder, who served articles at the firm in 1988, and has worked on behalf of the Catholic Church for 30 years.