Fran Sheffield and her website Homeopathy Plus have been hit with penalties of $23k and $115k respectively for their continued claims that the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine did not work and that homeopathy was an effective alternative.
The case against Sheffield and the website was brought by industry watchdog the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission following repeated complaints from skeptical activists.
Sheffield refused to comply with orders from the ACCC – initiated in 2012 – to take the offending article down from her site, rather posting slightly edited versions that still contained the same claims. The Commission took her to court in 2013.
On October 13, 2015, Justice Melissa Perry of the Federal Court of Australia finally handed down her judgement on penalties: Sheffield was given 90 days to pay her penalty of $23,000, and Homeopathy Plus given 30 days to pay $115,000.
In addition, both parties are restrained for five years from making any statements or representations, in trade or commerce, to the effect that the vaccine currently available against whooping cough is ineffective, and that homeopathic treatments are a safe and effective alternative.
The court also found that the ACCC was entitled to costs which, considering the time and legal authorities involved, could possibly be a much greater amount than the pecuniary penalties.
The judgement from Justice Perry says that she had taken into account various matters, including that the contraventions were “extremely serious in light of the risk they pose to public health and the heightened importance generally in cases of this kind of general deterrence and here, also of specific deterrence.
“It is important to send a strong message that the kind of conduct undertaken in this case will attract a penalty which ensures that such contraventions are not regarded as merely an acceptable part of the price of doing business,” she said.
She added that a “passionate belief” was not a defence in a matter that contravenes Australian consumer law and creates serious risks to public health.”
The apparent ill health of Sheffield and her husband, and their claimed difficult financial situation (though no bank statements had been offered in court to substantiate this claim), were taken into consideration.
“I consider that it would be crushing to impose on her a substantial pecuniary penalty, although the penalty must still pay specific attention to general and specific deterrence.”