Belle Gibson was fined for making false claims about donating her profits. (Fairfax Media: Supplied)
Fake wellness blogger Belle Gibson has failed to pay a $410,000 fine for duping consumers, prompting Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) to make an “extraordinary” court application to be given the power to prosecute her for contempt of court.
The Federal Court ordered Ms Gibson to pay the fine by mid-October last year after she was found guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct for falsely claiming she had brain cancer which was cured by alternative therapies and nutrition.
Ms Gibson made $420,000 after building a social media empire and releasing The Whole Pantry cookbook and app based on the claims.
In March last year, the Federal Court found Ms Gibson made false claims about donating a large portion of her profits to charities and to the family of a boy who had an inoperable brain tumour.
Consumer Affairs Victoria today applied to have the court’s penalty orders amended to allow it to prosecute Ms Gibson for contempt of court if it finds evidence she has the money to pay the fine but refuses, or is hiding assets to make it appear she can’t afford to pay it.
The court heard Ms Gibson would not be in contempt of court for simply being unable to pay the fine.
Contempt charge could come with jail time
Barrister Elle Nikou Madalin, representing CAV, said as the deadline for the payment had “long expired”, they were now concerned Ms Gibson might evade paying the fine and commit contempt of court.
“It’s about ensuring that everyone is forewarned, including, I might add, third parties who might unwittingly … assist Ms Gibson to conduct herself in a way which might constitute contempt,” she told the hearing.
“It provides her with a clear warning to ensure that she does not unwittingly behave in a way which might expose her to penalty.”
The court heard Ms Gibson could face jail time if she was found in contempt.
But Ms Nikou Madalin said there was no evidence that Ms Gibson had refused to pay the fine despite having the funds available, or that she had hid her assets.
Ms Gibson didn’t attend court but opposes CAV’s application for a penal notice to be issued allowing her to be prosecuted for contempt of court.
Her barrister Andrew Traghard told the hearing it was a “most unusual, extraordinary and very serious application without proper basis”.
Mr Traghard said CAV hadn’t done anything to enforce the court’s orders since they were made.
“Enforcement steps could have been taken immediately and we haven’t heard why no enforcement steps have been made,” he said.
Mr Traghard told the hearing CAV should have asked for the authority to prosecute for contempt of court when the fine was handed down.
Justice Debbie Mortimer asked if Ms Gibson had provided an explanation for why she hadn’t paid the fine or tendered documents for the current hearing before the court’s deadline.
Mr Traghard said he was engaged by Ms Gibson last Friday and had no instructions in relation to those issues.
“The term cavalier comes to mind again,” Justice Mortimer said, “it looks like that’s her attitude again”.
Mr Traghard responded: “We are here, obviously Ms Gibson takes this matter very seriously.”
Ms Nikou Madalin acknowledged CAV may have made a mistake not to apply for the authority to prosecute for contempt of court last September.
CAV has sent Ms Gibson two letters of demand in relation to the fine.