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Bullying culture at heart of HEA under investigation
16 Sep, 2020
The legal representatives who presumed to act on behalf of the Home Education Association (HEA Inc) between May 4th and 20th August 2018, at the direction of people who had no authority to appoint them to represent the HEA, are under investigation by the NSW Office of Legal Services Commissioner (OLSC).
The OLSC regulates and disciplines lawyers and barristers through the mechanism of the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) if the charges are considered serious or criminal.
The investigation is prompted by serious allegations of misconduct and professional malpractice, including breaches of both the Associations Incorporations Act and the Legal Profession Uniform Law Application Act. The legal representatives have been directed to respond to the allegations in writing by the 9th October 2020.
A stalwart warrior for justice, special needs teacher and home educating parent of two, Ms Dibben has amassed a substantial document with evidence detailing the nature of the breaches and malfeasance.
Subjected to ongoing bullying by particular committee and subcommittee members as a volunteer over two years within the once popular homeschooling association, Ms Dibben refused to ‘quietly go away' and joined the committee in 2017, hoping to address some of the serious issues besetting the failing organisation.
Instead, as a result of the intervention of questionable legal advice, she became the target of a vindictive and vexatious legal battle that “dragged her name through the mud and decimated her chances of growing her home educating business”.
Ms Dibben wasn't alone: in total four other home educating parents were subjected to harassment and defamation and unnecessary court actions. Many others were threatened with being taken to court for supporting them or suggesting non-court alternatives to resolve the issues at the heart of the dispute.
In May of 2018 a group of disgruntled and dissatisfied members held a private meeting and appointed themselves the committee of the Home Education Association.
The first case, held through the Supreme Court, proceeded though 7 different statements of claims, discontinuing or dismissing the four homeschooling mums without the plaintiffs ever receiving anything useful, or even articulating a case against them. At which point the plaintiffs, guided by their legal team, decided to sue the association instead. Court cases aren't cheap: legal bills were mounting. Defended by the association's insurance company-funded legal team, a settlement was reached during court-ordered mediation between the parties suing the HEA (Vivienne Fox, Karleen Gribble, and current president of the association Karen Chegwidden) and the HEA's insurance company.
The second case, a matter presented to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal by the HEA (now headed by the previous plaintiff Karen Chegwidden and Tere Latimer), was criticized for lacking evidence and was lost. The judgment can be read here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1iOl6xibL38J3XzRYOuy5WdqKM0OwKz_e/view .
Despite losing two court cases against five home educating parents the group of people calling themselves the HEA management committee changed the constitution earlier this year to consolidate their control over the association.
The culture of bullying continues and includes denigrating and defamatory comments in their annual general report published on the HEA website. Complaints have been sent to admins of other groups by homeschooling families unhappy with the attitude and treatment they've received from the HEA committee as new members. Many have indicated that they will let their membership lapse. Refunds have been refused.
Ms Dibben is tireless in pursuit of justice for the many aggrieved former members of the association. Over 600 walked away in 2018, almost halving the membership, disgusted that a small group of members had usurped control and decided to sue former friends, all volunteers.
Home educating families across Australia believe this action of taking fellow homeschooling families to court has created a rift within the close-knit and usually supportive home educating community. Many online home education support groups have ostracized the HEA until it unreservedly apologises to the five defendants for the grief and stress unnecessary court action caused, and the previous HEA administrative staff have been paid in full their contracted remuneration .
The bullying and litigious culture that has become part of the day-to-day running of the HEA is finally being called to account.
The NSW Office of Legal Services Commissioner accepted the substantial allegations package presented to them without question or correction and determined that there was a case to investigate against the legal representatives.
Ms Dibben said, “The allegations cover 8-9 different sections or offence types and each section has about 6 - 25 sub paragraphs, all numbered with 1-10 pieces of evidence each proving the offence occurred.”
She has provided the OLSC with 536 pages of supporting evidence.
Ms Dibben said she was grateful that the NSW Attorney General's explanation regarding the public interest aspect of this investigation finally gave the push needed to address these serious allegations.
She said, “I can't express the depths of how disappointing all three regulators have been”.
“The threat of ongoing legal action for unknown reasons and subsequent continual defamation, harassment and theft of my intellectual property was extremely frustrating,” said Ms Dibben.
In addition, frustration at the lack of action previously by the Office of Fair Trading, which Ms Dibben claimed “irresponsibly misrepresented her, without [her] knowledge or consent, to be the ‘other party' to [the plaintiffs]”, an action which landed her with no case to answer in the Supreme Court, prompted her to continue to pursue the matter.
When appealing to the NSW Ombudsman the Office of Fair Trading's abuse of process against the defendants was framed as a “a breach of their right to privacy” rather than a misrepresentation of the facts causing harm, as Ms Dibben saw it.
Ms Dibben lamented that, “I t seems that the only mechanism available under the Office of Fair Trading's regulatory framework is for members/volunteers or members of the public to take serious matters relating to breaches of various Acts to court at their own risk and at great expense.”
“Effectively, this means that it is up to private citizens to police the actions of out-of-control committee members as it has been proven in the HEA's case, which is a completely unacceptable situation for the 6,000,000 volunteers across Australia and a public interest situation the NSW Attorney General Mr Speakman has taken on board.”
“This lack of regulation by the Office of Fair Trading, leaves any association member/volunteer or even an non-associated member of the public vulnerable to the potential to be sued, or in my case extorted, in the NSW Supreme Court by individuals usurping control of an association and misusing the apparatus of the court to intimidate and harass their opponents with the aid of complicit lawyers. While the predators can be assured that the regulators (that volunteers currently assume will step in), will actually do nothing.
“An Incorporated Association and its assets can be controlled by any party with the means to use the Supreme Court to bully their targets into submission regardless of an individual's lack of ability to comply with their demands. This can happen regardless of whether the courts or anyone else has been informed that they cannot rely upon the assumption that the individuals in question actually have the authority to act on behalf of an association.”
If these allegations are proven, it will mean by extension every action taken by the current HEA committee is seriously tainted and questionable, a position many former members of the association believe to be true.
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