Shand Taylor partner John Sneddon gets Marcus Lee home from Dubai
JOHN Sneddon waited anxiously in the Brisbane Shand Taylor office in January as thousands of kilometres away Marcus and Julie Lee navigated their way through Dubai customs.
Five years and more than 50 court appearances had come and gone and all the Lees wanted to do was to get home to Australia, but with all the twists and turns this case had taken, there was no telling what the authorities would do next.
Sneddon picked up his phone and sent a text message to Marcus, which he knew his friend would appreciate; a quote from First World War French statesman Georges Clemenceau: ‘War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory’.
It was a favourite saying of the two men; an inspirational quote which had steeled Lee in the many challenges that had come his way.
Marcus replied a few minutes later with “Yeah. Good old George”.
Not long after, another message arrived: Marcus and Julie were waiting to board the plane to Australia.
The nightmare was over.
The phone call came in January 2009 as Sneddon was working a high-profile case involving the ex-wife of former Billabong chief executive Matthew Perrin.
A woman was on the phone begging him to take a look at the plight of a former Sydney businessman being held in solitary confinement in a Dubai prison after a property deal with Gold Coast-based Sunland Group went wrong.
Curiosity piqued, the Shand Taylor partner spent the weekend reading reports he could find online and was quickly drawn into Marcus Lee’s high stakes and fascinating case.
A Skype call with Julie and there was no turning back. An emotional five years lay ahead that would lead to some of the highest and lowest moments of Sneddon’s legal career.
And he would do it all over again.
“It was definitely a fascinating case and I never once regretted taking it on. It was a high-stakes game and it kept me sharp,” says Sneddon.
“There is no doubt I spent a lot of time on the case, but I got a lot of support from my wife and the other partners at Shand Taylor and I made sure it did not interfere with my practice here.”
Sneddon handled the case from the Australian end, negotiating with the Sunland lawyers and lawyers for the co-accused at the time: Matt Joyce, Angus Reed and to a more limited extent direct contact with Anthony Brearley.
He also met with the former foreign minister Bob Carr, the former federal attorney general Mark Dreyfus QC and negotiated with representatives from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the office of the Prime Minister.
Sneddon, who specialises in company disputes and employment law, laughs when he thinks back on a client agreement he drew for the Lees, estimating his services would cost $5000.
“It quickly became apparent the job was much bigger than the original quote and Marcus and Julie had no capacity to pay,"he says.
“It had also become apparent to me, after reading all the documents, that Marcus was innocent.”
“They were desperately trying to find funding and I said ‘don’t worry. Let’s take one step at a time.’
“Once I was involved and became entwined in the case – I just couldn’t stop because it would mean I was saying to these people ‘sorry, you are on your own’.”
“They would have had to find another lawyer to work pro bono and I couldn’t have that on my conscience.”
Marcus Lee was arrested on Australia Day in 2009 and was imprisoned without charge for seven months, before being acquitted of fraud charges in May 2013, but the prosecutor immediately launched an appeal, which continued until November last year, when Lee was acquitted for the second time.
The prosecution again had 30 days to lodge an appeal, but decided against it. Marcus’ plight was by no means over though.
“It was a rollercoaster ride. On the Friday he was to fly out he was almost carted off to State Security at the airport. It was one of those cases of highs and lows.”
Sneddon remembers the first acquittal and the feelings of elation that accompanied it.
“It was an amazing feeling, even though we knew all the evidence was so overwhelmingly in Marcus’ favour, we had no control over the system and were really concerned he would get lumped in with everyone else and convicted, so on May 20, while I was sitting in my office waiting for the judgement he rang and said ‘we did it mate, we did it’.”
“It was the most memorable moment in my career. The case was all about highs and lows but unfortunately, two weeks later the prosecution appealed and we all fell in a hole again. Six months after that once again we received the news the court of appeal had not only acquitted Marcus, but acquitted everyone.”
Lee was acquitted on November 20, but didn’t fly into Sydney until January 20; all part of the process in Dubai, where Lee was forced to pay off all his debts (but needed his bail money back in order to do that) and obtain a No Objections Certificate.
The legal strategy devised by Sneddon, Lee and his Dubai lawyers was to work within the system, refrain from criticising it and respect it. Today, Sneddon describes it as “draining”.
A trial does not start on one day and continue for seven hours a day until it is finished; it starts and goes for an hour, then there is an adjournment of two or three months before coming back for another hour.
It is also non-adversarial. Lawyers ask a question of the judge, who decides on the merit of the question, before asking the witness.
The lengthy wait times also mean multiple judges sit the same case and the new ones are forced to rely on the notes of their predecessors.
“It is an unusual system, the judges who hear the evidence are not necessarily the same ones who pass judgement,” says Sneddon.
“It raises issues of how to determine the credibility of a witness if the judge does not get to see the emotions provided by that witness at the time.”
The defence team also had trouble encouraging witnesses to show up, with the only deterrent an inconsequential fine of about $200.
“Another big problem is that if a witness doesn’t show up, the case is immediately adjourned until the next month and there were instances when the witness didn’t show up for two or three times and the Australian embassy had to intervene.”
“Our legal strategy was to never question the system and to work within it. As an Australian lawyer you have to accept things are different in Dubai and work within the confines of the system and always respect the system.”
“Our public relations strategy was to keep a very low profile and not say anything that could be construed as pejorative of the judiciary or the Dubai legal system.”
The former journalist made two trips to Dubai; most of his liaisons with Lee were through email and Skype. The time zone difference fitted in well with work in Australia, as at 6pm it was midday in Dubai.
He and Lee would prepare the defence in English over Skype and his Dubai lawyers would modify it to suit the local legal system and translate it to Arabic. He was also the buffer between family and media, as they were getting bombarded with requests from the media.
Asked if there was a lesson to be learned from the case, Sneddon says things can’t be taken for granted in a foreign country.
“Never underestimate the way your life can change in an instant when you are overseas. Marcus Lee was sitting in his office and received a telephone call from the authorities asking him to help them with an issue relating to his employer.
“He drove into the police station only to be arrested and put in solitary confinement for two months and his nightmare began.”
“The lesson when these things occur is to accept things are different to your own country and get yourself good local legal advice wherever you are. You should also retain lawyers in Australia to do all that is required back home and very seriously consider a PR strategy which does not in any way jeopardise the safety or security of the accused.”
The Lees may have legal options open for compensation in Australia, but Sneddon says it is early days and the couple is simply enjoying being home.
“My focus was purely on executing the file I had opened, to get Marcus home. Litigation is possible and we will be considering that over the next couple of months.”
Photo: John Sneddon, Julie Lee, Marcus Lee
Get our daily business news
Sign up to our free email news updates.