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A theatrical company facing allegations it discriminated against an actor who made well-publicised sexual harassment complaints about another star will try to have the case dismissed or suppressed.
Christie Whelan Browne has brought a lawsuit against Oldfield Entertainment alleging victimisation after she complained of harassment by Craig McLachlan, her cast-mate in a 2014 production of the Rocky Horror Show.
The lawsuit centres around alleged discrimination experienced during the show and in Oldfield’s responses to her complaints from 2017 onwards.
“I know that I deserved better treatment, that I deserved to feel safe and respected in my workplace,” Whelan Browne said in a statement on social media earlier in September.
“Other women in the arts deserve better and I won’t accept that anything less than that is ‘just the way it is’.”
The Federal Court lawsuit has been filed against the theatrical company and does not seek relief from McLachlan.
He was acquitted of alleged sexual assault in December 2020 and dropped defamation action against media outlets and Whelan Browne in 2022, citing a need to protect his own mental health.
Oldfield Entertainment’s barrister Bronwyn Byrnes told a Federal Court hearing on Friday the company had been disadvantaged in responding to the lawsuit.
The whereabouts of some people named in the lawsuit was no longer known as they had finished working at the company and could not be directed to participate in the proceedings.
Their memories would also have “diminished significantly”, Byrnes said.
She foreshadowed an application to summarily dismiss or permanently stay the proceedings, saying the respondents were significantly prejudiced by a delay of more than eight years.
Oldfield also lacked access to transcripts of past criminal and civil proceedings and sought more time to respond to the proceedings, which Byrnes said the company only became aware of last week.
“Until then we had no sensitivity that proceedings were actually going to be launched,” she said.
Whelan Browne’s barrister Kate Eastman SC said Oldfield had been on notice since a complaint was made to and terminated by the Australian Human Rights Commission.
“The reasons that have been advanced this morning … are not reasons that should cause any delay,” Eastman said.
Mediation is planned for late November to potentially avoid a trial.
Eastman said if a trial went ahead it should take “a trauma-informed approach” providing certainty to Whelan Browne about what was expected of her.
The actor would be confident giving evidence orally, but her barrister raised concerns about requirements to prepare written affidavits “recounting all those incidents again”, noting interest in the case from the media.
Byrnes sought suppression, arguing past reporting caused McLachlan distress and embarrassment.
He was not a party to Whelan Browne’s lawsuit and could decide that he would not co-operate in the proceedings, which would further prejudice the defence, she said.
Justice Elizabeth Raper said she did not have the power to make the orders without a formal application, which Byrnes said would be made on Friday.
The case returns to court on Monday to schedule that hearing.