NSW government to appeal Melco decision

By Charlotte Lee Updated
NSW government to appeal Melco decision

The New South Wales government will appeal a Supreme Court decision that threatened to undermine a public inquiry set up to investigate probity and licensing issues involving James Packer’s Crown Resorts and Hong Kong casino group Melco.

Brisbane Times reports that the New South Wales Liquor and Gaming Authority launched an unprecedented inquiry last year to investigate Mr Packer’s sale of a 20 per cent stake in Crown to Melco, as well as revelations by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes that Crown went into business with figures linked to organised crime and money laundering.

Crown Resorts is building a $2.4 billion high-roller casino, hotel and luxury apartment tower at Sydney’s Barangaroo, which is due to open on Christmas Day.

The inquiry conducted by former Supreme Court Justice Patricia Bergin, SC, is set to begin public hearing on February 24 and was to have the same powers as a royal commission.

Melco challenged this assertion in court after refusing to hand over nine documents requested as evidence because they were covered by legal professional privilege.

New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Christine Adamson on Tuesday ruled in favour of Melco, finding that the wording of the Casino Control Act did not make it clear that parliament intended the legislation to override the right of lawyer-client confidentiality.

ILGA said after the decision that it was considering the court judgment and “how it may impact the running of the inquiry”.

Access to privileged material in question

A spokesman for the New South Wales government confirmed on Friday afternoon that NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman would appeal the court’s decision.

“Given the matter will return before the court, any further comment at this stage would be inappropriate,” the government spokesman said.

While the New South Wales inquiry’s ability to access privileged information is in question, counsel assisting Adam Bell, SC, revealed on the opening day of hearings last month that it had already received 58,000 documents in response to 45 summonses.

The inquiry also intended to call both Mr Packer and Melco boss Lawrence Ho to give evidence, Mr Bell said.

In her decision this week, Justice Adamson said there was “substantial risk” that parliament did not grasp the full implications of giving the powers of a royal commission to a gaming regulator inquiry when it passed the relevant legislation.

Justice Adamson said that if parliament did intend to make it possible for ILGA inquiries to override the common law right of lawyer-client confidentiality, then “it was obliged to make its intention clear.”

Melco’s agreement in May last year to buy 20 per cent in Crown in two tranches of shares attracted the gambling regulator’s attention because of a then-secret clause in Crown’s Sydney casino licence, which bans any involvement from Melco boss Lawrence Ho’s father, Stanley Ho, and a list of associates because of allegations of links to organised crime.

The group, which has the bulk of its business in Macau, last week tore up its deal with Mr Packer for the transfer of the second 10 per cent tranche of Crown shares, worth $880 million.

Melco said the deal collapsed because it needed to focus on its core Asian businesses, which have been being negatively affected by the coronavirus outbreak, and announced it did not intend to increase its stake in Crown above the 10 per cent it had already bought from Mr Packer and would no longer seek seats on Crown’s board.

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