Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting calls on reclusive heiress to front court

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Reclusive mining heiress Angela Bennett could be forced to explain her absence in the multibillion-dollar mining royalties battle her pioneer father’s company is waging against rival magnate Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting in the West Australian Supreme Court.

Hancock Prospecting’s lawyer Noel Hutley, SC, requested an explanation for Bennett’s absence on Thursday after producing a flurry of documents he claimed rendered Wright Prospecting’s claim to a stake in the royalties flowing out of Hancock’s Hope Downs iron ore mine “hopeless”.

The descendants of mining pioneers Lang Hancock and Peter Wright have been pitted against each other for decades.Credit: Graphic: Stephen Kiprillis.

For 13 years, the descendants of Peter Wright have insisted that under a 1980s partnership deal, they gained an interest in the Hope Downs asset the mining pioneer discovered alongside school friend-turned-business partner Lang Hancock.

But Hutley said memorandums exchanged between several high-ranking Wright Prospecting senior executives, Peter’s son Michael Wright, and daughter Angela Bennett in 1989 indicated they knew they had no interest in it.

Documents exchanged in the days after those memos, Hutley said, showed the parties proposing that a portion of Hope Downs – known then as East Angelas – be made a joint asset to even out the value in a partnership carve-up.

“This document shows an acute awareness and appreciation by the four individuals who created it, and it was addressed to and received by Michael Wright and Angela Bennett,” he said.

“It is in every respect flatly contrary to the case made by [Wright Prospecting].

“In fact, it’s hard to understand how the case can be made, frankly.

“This case is hopeless, should never have been brought, and we would invite Wright Prospecting to rescind the claim to East Angelas. It must be dismissed.”

The position was further corroborated, Hutley claimed, by minutes of board meetings to that effect.

“That’s the end of the case. There simply cannot be a case maintained by Wright Prospecting that it has any interest in these assets,” he said.

The court was told many of those involved in negotiations at the time had since died, with 78-year-old Bennett one of the few who could still give evidence.

Hutley questioned why she had not submitted a statement in the case, referencing court rules whereby it can be inferred that if a party chooses not to give evidence, it is because it would not have helped their case.

The court was told Bennett had given evidence in a previous case that she had suffered impairment of her memory following a surgery to remove a brain tumour in 2003. Regardless, Hutley said her absence should be explained.

“There has been no affidavit to explain [Bennett’s] absence in this case,” he said.

“If Wright Prospecting indicates Mrs Bennett is not in a position to give evidence, we will accept it, but otherwise, absent a proper explanation, there would be a Jones and Dunkel inference. We would like an explanation.”

Who is Angela Bennett?

Angela Bennett is the daughter of Peter Wright, who along with Lang Hancock pioneered the discovery of valuable iron ore deposits in Western Australia’s Pilbara region. 

Royalties from the tenements pegged by Wright and Hancock in the 1960s flow to Bennett and her nieces Leonie Baldock and Alexandra Burt, who together own Wright Prospecting.

The Australian Financial Review Rich List for 2023 put Bennett’s wealth at $4.63 billion.

Despite being one of the richest people in the country, Bennett maintains a low profile, with as few as two public photographs of her in existence.

Hutley said the court had been denied the ability of the best view of evidence and Hancock Prospecting had been denied the benefit of Bennett’s evidence courtesy of Wright Prospecting’s delay in bringing the action until 2010, which he said should also render the lawsuit void.

“The extraordinary delay, if this case was seriously believed to be true, by those two individuals [Michael Wright and Angela Bennett] … they would have been the central witnesses to the Wright Prospecting case,” he told the court.

The court was also taken through documents exchanged in the wake of Hancock Prospecting’s 2005 joint venture with Rio Tinto, in which it handed the mining giant a 50 per cent stake in Hope Downs.

A work diary of Wright Prospecting’s general manager indicated the company was contacted by the son of Don Rhodes – Wright and Hancock’s former business associate, whose company is now fighting for a 1.25 per cent stake in Hope Downs’ royalties.

Ken Rhodes raised his right to a royalty under a 1969 agreement his father had inked with the original pioneers, to which Wright Prospecting allegedly informed him not to look to them for a royalty for the portion of Hope Downs.

The documents appear to contradict evidence tendered by Wright Prospecting, which it said showed the lucrative Pilbara iron ore site was always meant to be shared.

Wright maintains it is entitled to a half-share of the royalties from Hope Downs – now home to four operational mines deemed the country’s most successful – because it never relinquished its partnership interest in the asset.

The court is expected to hear evidence later today on asset moves Lang Hancock had been making between various entities amid what Hutley described as “unfortunate difficulties” between him and Rinehart.

Hutley said those arose after his marriage to Perth socialite Rose Porteous and culminated in Rinehart being removed as a director.

Hancock Prospecting is anticipated to attack the case put by Gina Rinehart’s other legal opponents – her eldest children, John Hancock and Bianca Rinehart – who claim Hope Downs was an asset left to them by their grandfather.

The case continues.

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