Wine law allegation is a slur on character

A Freehill Hollingdale & Page partner, who is suing a French law firm over allegations that he seduced a French associate, is leaving the top Australian firm.

IP partner Stephen Stern is suing two partners at French firm Coutrelis & Associes for defamation over claims he had a “very close personal relationship” with one of their solicitors at a wine law conference in Brussels last year. Stern rejects allegations of the affair.

Paris-based partners Nicole and Andre Coutrelis wrote to Freehills managing partner last year saying Stern's behaviour reflected “very poorly” on the reputation of the firm. They added that it was “morally, ethically and professionally questionable”.

The partners are being represented by Australian firm Clayton Utz but do not recognise the Australian court's right to judge them. Stern has won a default judgment in the case because of the Coutrelis' failure to appear at the court hearing. Damages are to be decided in February.

Stern claims the French pair alleged he had the affair to gain “a personal advantage” in the wine law association, of which he was president at the time and Nicole Coutrelis was secretary-general.

Andre Coutrelis refuses to comment on the case but says: “It's his life and he wanted to do it this way. We are not interested in getting involved.”

Stern has decided to set up his own firm after an unrelated disagreement with management. But he says Freehills is still supporting him financially in his case.

A spokesperson for Freehills says Stern left over a difference in approach to the management style of the IP section in Melbourne.