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Disruptive farmer guilty of contempt

A Gordonbrook farmer faces the prospect of prison after being found guilty of contempt over a bitter dispute involving the lease of a South Burnett property.

In the Brisbane Supreme Court on Wednesday, farm owner Peter David Wicks was found guilty of 20 breaches of an injunction which had been granted in December 2020 after an application by farm lessee Jacob Daniel Berghofer.

The order followed the souring of the relationship between the parties in mid-2019, and restrained Mr Wicks from “impeding, obstructing or acting in any way that is inconsistent with or in breach of his (Mr Berghofer’s) rights to peaceful occupation, possession and enjoyment as lessee” under the three-year lease of the 941-hectare property Lochavon.

The subsequent disruption of Mr Berghofer’s stud cattle operation by Mr Wicks – including the electrification of a water trough and the leaving open of gates to allow cattle to wander – led to an application by Mr Berghofer in January last year for an order that Mr Wicks be dealt with for contempt.

Last week, Justice Burns found Mr Wicks guilty of a string of breaches between January 2021 and November 2022.

He found Mr Wicks guilty of 20 of 25 alleged charges involving damaging property, obstructing access, interfering with activities and attempting termination of the lease.

He found Mr Wicks not guilty of two charges of sequestering cattle, two charges of opening gates, and one charge of interfering with activities by ploughing pasture.

Contempt carries a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment or a fine of 200 penalty units ($31,000).

Justice Burns said that at the hearing in February last year, he found Mr Berghofer to be a forthright and reliable witness, and other witnesses called in support of his application to be truthful and reliable.

“On the other hand, Mr Wicks was not a truthful witness. He was constantly evasive and frequently argumentative,” he said.

“At one point during the hearing, I gave consideration to whether he had simply adopted a wrongheaded view of the rights granted to Mr Berghofer by the lease, but his conduct overall was more sinister than that.

“I have no doubt that he settled on a strategy that was calculated to force Mr Berghofer to quit the lease.”

He said part of Mr Wicks’ strategy involved a false claim as to the area and location of a horse paddock referred to in a clause of the lease, because “through the maintenance of such a claim, he could pretend to be entitled to open slather” across some of the property.

The other part of the strategy was to engage in conduct constituting the breaches, he said.

Examples of the conduct – some of which was captured in photos and on video – included:

  • routinely leaving gates open, which let cows stray onto main roads and be killed;
  • damaging a gate by driving through it with a bulldozer;
  • obstructing access to land by using wire, tractor tyres and cable; and
  • driving a tractor at Mr Berghofer, his farmhand and cattle with an intention to disrupt a muster.

“I find that he was, from around the middle of 2019, motivated to engineer a situation whereby continuance of the lease became unworkable if not completely intolerable to Mr Berghofer,” Justice Burns said.

“Importantly to the outcome of this application, this desire to frustrate Mr Berghofer’s use of the land did not abate when the injunction was granted and probably continued in earnest until the application to deal with him for contempt was filed.

“Then, facing the prospect of being dealt with, he contested almost every charge and, for the most part, advanced false denials in an attempt to avoid responsibility.”

Justice Burns directed the parties to make submissions as to penalty and costs.

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