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City Desk
1 May, 2009  
Fire ... Fire

Expensive blame game Royal Commission into Victorian bushfires will keep truck loads of lawyers fully employed for the next year or so

imageThe Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission comes as a badly needed shot in the arm for Melbourne lawyers.

At the directions hearings on Monday (April 20) it became apparent just how vast were the legal resources and personnel deployed to fight the Royal Commission blaze.

On the transcript Justinian counted 20 barristers and solicitors, including six silken ones.

Among those appearing:

* Allan Myers AO QC with Neil Clelland SC, Gary Livermore and Marita Foley for the State of Victoria;

* Tim Begbie (AGS) for the Commonwealth;

* Jonathan Beach QC and Alan Archibald QC for Ausnet SP (the power company), instructed by Freehills;

* Neil Young QC, Gregory Lyon SC and Jonathon Redwood for the Municipal Association of Victoria and 77 Victorian Councils, instructed by Mallesons Stephen Jaques;

* Ian Hill QC and Darren Bracken for the Police Association of Victoria, instructed by Tony Hargreaves & Partners;

* Christopher Winneke for the Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria;

* Wendy Harris for the Insurance Council of Australia;

* Toby Borgeest (Slater & Gordon) for the United Firefighters Union of Australia;

imageJack Rush is senior counsel assisting the commission, supported by no fewer than three juniors – Rachel Doyle (pic), Melinda Richards and Lisa Nichols.

The ringmaster is Bernard Teague, not long retired after benching at the Supremes for 20 years.

He’s backed up by two other commissioners – Ron McLeod (ex-Canberra public servant, Public Service Board and Defence Dept, who led the inquiry into the 2003 ACT bushfires) and Susan Pascoe (a Victorian administrative person with a background in Catholic school education).

The Royal Commission is to inquire into all aspects of the fires which roared through large areas of the state in January killing 173 people.

In March Bernie and the gang embarked on a “listening tour” of the fire affected towns.

The Royal Commission has released a list of all the parties granted leave to appear when the hearings get underway properly on May 11.

In all, 80 have been granted unconditional leave to appear – i.e. to be represented during all the commission’s hearings.

This includes the Victorian and Commonwealth governments, the Municipal Association and 77 local governments.

Thirteen parties have been given conditional leave to appear on specific matters:

* United Fire Fighters Union of Australia;

* Australian Worker’s Union;

* Insurance Council of Australia;

* Housing Industry Association;

* Volunteer Fire Brigades;

* SP Ausnet and affiliates;

* Police Association of Victoria;

* ABC;

* Australian Institute of Architects;

* Telstra;

* ACE Radio Broadcasters;

* Master Builders Association;

* Powercorp.

The Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) has complained that around 30 individuals and community groups it has assisted have been refused leave to appear and told to provide written submissions.

According to Mat Tinkler, PILCH’s acting executive director, many of these people have compelling and often tragic stories of survival as well as insights into the fires, their causes and the factors that led to the devastation.

“Money is no object for the big players, which are briefing the country’s top lawyers to appear before the commission,” Tinkler tinkled.

“Meanwhile, bushfire survivors and communities that were devastated by the fires have been provided with no funded assistance to seek leave to appear or make submission to the Royal Commission.

This load has been carried pro bono so far by the Victorian legal profession, but such generosity can’t be expected to last forever.”

PILCH wants “targeted legal support” to bushfire survivors and affected communities to allow them to fully and effectively participate in the commission.

Bernie fears getting bogged down and has ruled out the devastated multitudes.

imageCommander Rush (pic) addressed the issue at the start of the hearings, “hopefully to clear up any misunderstanding”.

“Leave to appear is granted to a person or entity whose conduct is under scrutiny … particularly where there is potential for such person or entity to be criticised in evidence or by finding.

It needs to be understood that where leave to appear is not granted to an individual this does not mean such person will be denied the opportunity of giving evidence or, as some have put it, shut out of the Royal Commission.

On the contrary, persons are being identified to ensure such evidence is presented to the Royal Commission. The engagement with the community commenced by the commissioners will be carried through into the evidence.”

Corrs Chambers Westgarth has been selected to provide legal services to the commission and to instruct counsel assisting.

According to the Royal Commission’s chief executive, Jane Brockington, the firm’s selection followed a “comprehensive process” lasting six weeks.

Leading Melbourne law shops were asked to identify whether there were any conflicts that might preclude them from acting.

Three shortlisted firms were then invited to submit an expression of interest. Brockington added:

“Corrs Chambers Westgarth has been chosen from a strong field on the merits of the expertise, resources and value for money it was able to provide to the commission.”

Corrs wasn’t eager to engage with Justinian and referred questions about the numbers of people they are deploying for this exercise back to the RC.

The commission’s media muffin, Tracey Matters, would not give us a figure nor could she provide list of the instructing law firms.

On the commission’s admin and support side, staff numbers vary, but overall there are between 12 and 16 people on the payroll.

The Premier, John Brumby, announced in February that $40 million Victorian dollars had been allocated for the set-up and operation of the Royal Commission.

There have been previous Royal Commissions into bushfires in Victoria. The history of these exercises is that they have a tendency to focus of who’s to blame.

imageThe preoccupation of the parties is to try and shift fault onto someone else.

It’s not the shires’ fault … it is not the electricity company’s fault … it is not the firefighters’ fault … it is not the state government’s fault … etc.

One of the key issues for Bernie (pic) and his team is to come up with something to replace the confusing stay or go policy.

Politically the important purpose of the RC was to shift the immediate heat of the disaster off the state government. Ministers routinely say in response to any probe, “That’s now a matter for the Royal Commission”.

Last month the Australian Law Reform Commission released a snapshot of its inquiry into Royal Commissions.

The ALRC said:

“Royal Commissions have often been criticised for being too expensive. Estimates of the costs (in today’s dollars) of recent Royal Commissions include approximately $13 million for the AWB Inquiry, over $47 million for the inquiry into the collapse of insurance giant HIH, and over $70 million for the three-year inquiry into the Building and Construction Industry. The costs of Royal Commissions, however, must be balanced against the benefits of conducting such inquiries.”

The Bushfires Royal Commission is to provide an interim report by August 17 and the final report is due by July 31, 2010.

There’s more than a year to run.

You can monitor progress HERE.


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