Significant Matters Best Law Firms – Australia

Australia's diverse, thriving legal market is continually shifting its landscape. Here’s a high-level look at recent cases from top-performing practice areas.

Woman sitting in front of computer adjusts glasses
Image by Adobestock/ Clayton D/


Amanda Smith

June 24, 2024 03:00 PM

The Australian legal sector stands at the crossroads of change, continuously shaped by evolving regulations, societal shifts and landmark cases. Our commitment to shedding light on the complexities of this field motivated us to capture moments and movements that have significantly impacted legal practices and policy discussions nationwide.

Through our Best Law Firms survey research process, we invited leading firms to report on the cases, transactions and developments that have left an indelible mark on the nation's legal fabric. In the following paragraphs, we will delve into these pivotal matters, exploring their intricacies, implications and the broader context in which they have unfolded. Ahead, we uncover the key drivers of change and the influential players shaping the future of Australia’s best law firms.

Banking & Finance

Significant financial legal cases exist beyond banking. One of Australia’s largest construction funding transactions—$600 million—demanded the expertise of one of Australia’s top law firms. With credentials as a crucial element in the successful execution of the investment, transactions like this highlight the importance of specialized advisory in landmark deals.

Risk allocation is a key consideration in the current climate in transactions of this size. Financial advisories are central to the success of infrastructure and development projects.

One of Australia's most significant construction funding transactions over recent years took place, with Law firm Maddocks advising lead alternative real estate investment managers Qualitas on $600 million in funding for a new Aura Aqualand luxury development in Sydney.

According to Maddocks CEO David Newman, Qualitas is one of Australia's largest alternative funders, making it a unique option for property developers. Maddocks has advised on a series of funding for property-related matters, the most recent including the funding package for the new Monarch Residences developed by Consolidated Properties Group in Brisbane.

"A key issue arising in these transactions is the risk allocation between the sponsor and the contractors and the extent to which a financier can seek a reallocation of this risk in the current climate. There is an increased scrutiny on the assignability of third-party contracts," he said.

Corporate Law

Two significant but different corporate law cases showcase the range and reach in this practice area. From the sale of the century-old, family-owned Australian brand, Akubra, to the DHI22 v. Qatar case that captivated the country, the cases that fall under corporate law are distinct and diverse.

Whether a local M&A of a beloved brand or an international lawsuit brought on by an aggrieved group of Australian travelers, the outcome of these cases has a ripple effect through the broader public, who fly or buy these brands. It affects much more than just the legal world.

The following cases highlight the broad spectrum of events that fall under corporate law. The first involves the sale of the iconic Australian brand Akubra, which was family-owned for over a century.

Maintaining its manufacturing in Australia was integral to the deal, where, according to advising firm Dentons, selling a family business was a completely different proposition from a corporate sale.

"By their nature, family businesses don't have much or any experience in M&A deals, so extra care needs to be taken to help them through the process. Working with a family business means you really get to know the business you're selling, the people who created it and (so you) do your absolute best for them," said Dentons Partner Jill Milburn.

The second significant commercial law case was a high-profile inquiry that captivated the Australian public – DHI22 v. Qatar. It involved a baby being abandoned, a subsequent police investigation into the attempted murder of the infant, and some of the women being subjected to a physical inspection by a nurse in an ambulance on the tarmac. The women sought damages for personal injury, alleging negligence, assault and battery and false imprisonment. The event took place at Hamad International Airport in October 2020.

Simon Morris, Partner at Qatar Airways' acting firm, Morris Mennilli, who represents legally and factually complex and often unique cases, commented on the lawsuit.

"The Qatar Airways instructions are legally significant because the resolution of the proceeding, granting summary judgment in favor of Qatar Airways, provides the 60 international airlines who operate in Australia and the millions of passengers who utilize those airlines' services, a certainty that the Montreal Convention is an exclusive and single, universal treaty governing airline liability," Morris said.

Aviation is a global industry operating across jurisdictions, and the Federal Court's decision in the Qatar Airways matter gives certainty that principles governing carrier liability will apply equally in Australia as they do in the 132 other countries party to the Montreal Convention.

"In the Qatar Airways instructions, our client was faced with a novel claim, and we devised and executed a strategy that exposed the claims brought against the airline as defective and liable to be summarily dismissed," Morris added.

He said the negligence claims failed to grapple with the exclusivity of the Montreal Convention, and the elements of the Convention that affix liability to carriers for passenger death and injury could not be satisfied.

Real Estate

As Australia’s third-largest industry, construction currently represents 9% of the nation’s GDP. The past five years have yielded historically high housing prices and low stock, further bolstering the industry’s growth. Trends such as remote work have also impacted what people prioritize regarding where they reside.

From privately backed high-end luxury living to government-funded affordable living to address the housing crisis, significant real estate and projects require compliance across structuring, legal advice, industry participation and partners.

Australia is amid a construction boom, with the industry projected to grow over 4% this year. Annual growth is expected to continue at 3% annually from 2025 to 2027.

The $1 billion Cbus Property development in Melbourne's CBD is one example of commercial projects adding to the city's skyline. Law firm Gadens acted for Cbus Property, preparing and negotiating lease agreements for the highly anticipated office-retail space that will welcome over 5,000 city workers.

Another high rise that will add to Melbourne's skyline is the Queens Bridge Hotel & Apartments, towering at 62 stories. Keighran Legal + Advisory is acting for next-generation developer Time & Place, a deal complex as a mixed-use project.

Managing Director Duane Keighran said the apartment tower seeks to buck the trend of rising construction costs by presenting a high-end hotel and long-stay apartment project in the heart of Melbourne.

"This was only made possible by Time & Place's experience and its relationship with Hickory and MaxCap, which provide the construction and financial expertise, respectively. Seeing projects like this come to fruition gives the market confidence that with the right structuring, legal advice and partners, projects like this can get off the ground—even in trying market conditions," Keighran said.

The Hotel is being managed under TFE Hotels' bespoke brand as a Collection Hotel, building upon its unique market aspects. Keighran said the project had peculiar aspects in terms of the interrelationship between potential Managed Investment Scheme issues for serviced apartments that could opt-in to a pooled rental scheme.

Keighran Legal + Advisory is also acting for a project, one of many in response to one of the nation's worst housing shortages in history.

From high rise to high needs, Keighran Legal + Advisory acts for the Bonnyrigg Renewal Project, which aims to ease the housing crisis through a mix of social, affordable and private dwellings and reinvigorate a tired area. The project will add 275 more homes, including 65 for social housing, while creating vibrant open spaces to connect the community.

The Bonnyrigg Renewal Project is a significant example of providing urban renewal in areas that have reached the end of their useful life.

"The NSW Government seeks to address these chronic housing shortages by entering into Project Delivery Agreements with preferred private developers in a public-private partnership model (PPP)," Keighran reported.

"As these developments have a social impact, financing is available through the Federal Government's National Housing Infrastructure Corporation (now Housing Australia) through one of its funds. To align with Housing Australia's stringent financing requirements, both upstream and downstream contracts had to include specific reporting and milestone dates," he said.

Keighran commented on the complexity of navigating Federal and State overlays in the regulated area of housing reform while ensuring projects are 'shovel ready' as quickly as possible.

"As the Federal and State government's investment in solving the housing crisis intensifies, the projects will become larger and more complex, requiring dedication from all industry participants to ensure we are all pulling in the same direction to alleviate housing concerns," he concluded.

Tax Law

The practice area of tax law can encompass many types of legal matters. From business structures and acquisitions to allegations and lawsuits, cases of tax law are varying and dynamic.

Legal counsel is critical to navigating tax and procedural complexities, whether the case relates to an individual or industry. While technology has been good for business, allowing Australian companies to grow globally has made commercial litigation more complex and critical.

Tax disputes are long, arduous, and cost-intensive on both sides of the coin – for both the individual or business and the ATO. Tax matters can range from business setup and structures to allegations and disputes, as seen in the two significant cases led by Macpherson Kelley.

The firm’s tax team advised Australian and international clients to resist default tax assessments based on primary income concepts. While the case remains active, Macpherson Kelley reduced the proposed audit position paper outcome from $185 million to $105 million. After the audit, the income tax assessments dropped to $33 million on objection.

Macpherson Kelley also led a significant tax matter, facilitating the successful acquisition of Global Hire & Services by Height 4 Hire, navigating several tax and operational complexities.

Commercial and tax dispute resolution specialist Aptum Legal is handling a taxation matter for an individual relating to assets valued at approximately $30 million with extraordinary procedural complexity, which involves funds passing through Australia to foreign countries.

Nigel Evans, Aptum’s Managing Director, said their tax practice has grown rapidly in the past few years, to the point where they are now regularly acting in highly technical Federal Court matters, as well as for ASX-listed clients, and are often being transferred matters from the taxpayer’s initial representation.

As businesses expand globally with greater ease, commercial litigation is becoming more complex due to cross-border transactions and disputes.

“Disruptive technologies, changing consumer behaviors and evolving business models are leading to more novel legal disputes, particularly in sectors such as fintech, e-commerce, and the sharing economy,” Evans said. “Commercial litigation is seeing a surge in electronic evidence and cyber-related disputes: data breaches, intellectual property infringements and disputes over digital assets. Today’s commercial litigators must adapt to these shifts and develop expertise in emerging areas of law,” he said.

Evans revealed Aptum is seeing more international clients who require assistance with litigating in Australia.

“We worked with Asian Gas Partners Limited on an international dispute relating to assets valued at approximately US$500 million, where they required specialist litigation expertise for the Australian jurisdiction. Aptum has significant internal advocacy experience, so we were able to successfully navigate some fairly significant procedural, factual and legal complexity with minimal involvement of counsel,” he said.

Aptum noted the growing importance of using data and systems to manage litigation effectively, ensuring that all relevant information is accessed and leveraged.

Amanda Smith is an accomplished journalist and writer. She reports on culture, human interest, business and technology. Smith has covered the metaverse lawyer, the cryptocurrency regulatory conversation, social commentary during the pandemic and presidential election and LGBTQ+ rights. She’s a regular columnist for NerdWallet Australia. Her work has been published in respected titles such as The Guardian, Business Insider, News Corp, National Geographic, MIT Technology Review and NerdWallet. Amanda is an Australian, living in the cultural center that is New York City.

Featured Articles