Gillian Bearman knows how to win an argument.
Firstly, she’s a mother of five – the eldest approaching teenagehood, the youngest aged just 3.
Secondly, the 40-year-old read a bit of law during her business studies – but admits to having learned how to cross-examine witnesses from watching television.
“I don’t really watch TV that much. However, I did get hooked on the Netflix series Suits,” she laughs.
She’s applied some of what she learned off the TV to her four years fighting claims against her, for work on a trampoline park venture that went belly-up in 2019.
Bearman’s story started in 2018 when her firm Urban Wolfire bought into Australian indoor trampoline arena franchise Flip Out to set up an arena in Wellington.
The idea was driven by a wish to blend her interest in business with things her children enjoyed.
Bearman was living in Westport at the time with her partner Blair Colligan, an entrepreneur in bottled water and minerals. The pair share the raising of Bearman’s three children from a previous relationship and the two younger children they have together.
However, the trampoline park venture didn’t turn out as planned.
“I was pretty much fighting the whole year I was open.”
Bearman said there was friction with franchise owner Steven Stone; he said she was difficult to deal with. Then came budget over-runs and the last straw when a problem arose over the steel used in the construction of the trampolines – Bearman said it wasn’t up to scratch and Worksafe said it didn’t meet health and safety regulations.
In August 2019 Bearman’s company went into voluntary liquidation, and the legal wrangles gathered steam, which in the end boiled down to a single unpaid bill from the electrician for just under $14,000.
As a result, the sparkie, Lower Hutt-based Mike’s Electrical Services Limited (MEL), took her to court – twice. In between, she batted off bankruptcy.
At the heart of the dispute was the billing arrangement the builder and electrician had with Bearman’s company. The electrician was sending his invoices to the builder, who then included the amount in the invoice sent to Bearman’s firm.
The builder left the project after Bearman became dissatisfied with the work being done, but the electrician carried on.
After some to-and-fro communication about invoicing, the electrician sent a final invoice to Bearman personally in July 2019, for what turned out to be work done the year before.
Having already paid tens of thousands of dollars for the renovation, and by then on the brink of liquidation and facing significant financial losses personally, she refused to pay the final $13,800 – partly because it wasn’t clear what it was for and mistakes with invoicing had been made in the past.
MEL took legal measures to get the money but was unsuccessful – twice.
The first time a judge dismissed the case after ruling there were conflicts as to what was agreed upon between the three parties – which raised “serious doubts” for the court – and who the electrical company had a contract with.
“The final invoice was unable to be disputed in court, there was no argument about who the contracting party was,” Bearman said.
MEL tried to recoup the money again late last year with a claim in the Nelson District Court.
By then Bearman was short of money and left with no choice but to defend herself. The result was the same as the first case.
Despite claims by the electrician’s lawyer that the dispute was about the money and that Bearman was being sued, the judge found MEL’s contract was with the building firm throughout and not Bearman herself and dismissed the case.
“It’s not the amount in dispute but who Mike’s Electrical had a contract with,” Judge Chris Tuohy told the court.
That meant Bearman was not responsible for the final bill or the associated court costs, which were getting close to three times the amount of the $13,813 claimed by MEL.
While the verdict was simple, the fight to get it wasn’t. Bearman said giving up the battle was never really an option as the consequences of doing that – including the possibility of a hefty costs bill – outweighed the stress and energy it took to combat it.
Bearman did, however, offer a settlement deal, mostly because she couldn’t afford a lawyer to help her fight the claim, but MEL’s lawyer came back with a figure of around $40,000.
“It was at that point I realised I had no choice but to follow through with the process as a self-litigant.”
She spent hours preparing, reading submissions and affidavit evidence, and researching other cases to get an understanding of what to do.
“I just stuck to what I knew – I just followed the money.
“The accountant side of me came out; I knew the trail was odd, so I focused on that.”
On the day of the hearing, she and Colligan arrived at court, armed with a library of material, ready to face off against the plaintiff, lawyers and witnesses crammed into a small room in Wellington and beamed live into the Nelson courthouse by video link.
“The morning of the trial I was nervous, I was entering an unfamiliar situation.
“I was questioning my confidence, thinking to myself: ‘What have I got myself into? Have I bitten off more than I can chew? How will the judge respond to me as a self-litigant?’
“Would I be respected for having the confidence to represent myself, or would I be perceived as disrespecting the legal profession for believing I can do what takes many years to achieve?”
Bearman said it was important she was clear from the start about the best angle from which to approach her defence.
“I had no doubt that hard evidence, written in black and white, is very hard to deny or successfully argue as being incorrect.
“I kept reminding myself of this throughout the process.”
Bearman is no stranger to the courtroom, having experienced the ups and downs of the Family Court and the employment disputes process; the latter the result of a prickly matter over her dismissal from a job.
Neither is Colligan unfamiliar with the justice system – he is upfront about time served in prison on drugs charges.
Bearman credited him with helping her through the times she was stricken with doubt.
But in a roundabout way, fighting her own case helped fulfil part of an early ambition to become a lawyer.
“To be honest when I was young and contemplating career paths, being a lawyer was top of my list, but upon further research of what the course demanded, the study material list was extensive.
“Back then I was not keen on reading that much, so chose a business management with an accounting degree.”
At the hearing in Nelson last October, Judge Tuohy worked hard to untangle the knotty contractual dispute.
As Bearman began her cross-examination he had to remind her to stick to the point and to keep her questions short and direct, but also acknowledged she was not a lawyer.
Bearman said afterwards she viewed it as constructive criticism.
“I took his advice by only asking the questions without getting caught up in the point I was trying to get the witness to clarify or admit.
“The judge was patient with me, and also assisted with rephrasing some questions I asked to make sure they were in line with proper litigation process and practices.”
Bearman was mildly confident of a successful outcome.
“I had a good feeling about it, but you just don’t know.
“Sometimes justice and the law don’t cross.”
Not everyone was happy with the outcome though.
A spokesperson for Mike’s Electrical Limited said he believed it was unjust but there was nothing more he could do.
“It’s been absolute chaos, to be perfectly honest.
“I’m gutted that we’ve done all that work – we did everything that was required of us – and then to not get paid … it’s just unfair.”
He said not only was the business out of pocket for the amount owed, but it also had to pay legal fees and costs associated with the hearing.
He reiterated there was no dispute over the quality of the work done, and the trampoline park turned out to be among the best he’d seen, but it was disappointing things had ended the way they had.
Buoyed by the win, Bearman is now thinking of taking up the next fight herself against what she alleges was unlawful cancellation of the lease on the premises for the trampoline park in Wellington and unlawful termination of the franchise agreement.
Her advice to others who might find themselves in a similar situation of having no choice but to fight for themselves, is to just tell the truth.
“I have learned that you know your case better than anyone, when for a lot of lawyers, it’s just another case, and at the end of the day they still get paid, win or lose.
“Don’t be intimidated, do your research and stick to the facts of your truth.”
By Tracy Neal
Open Justice multimedia journalist