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Sir Terence O'Rort
2 June, 2005  
At the court of Lord Eldon

The Commission of Inquiry into nearly 90 deaths at Bundaberg Hospital is a marvellous economic stimulant for Queensland’s legal caper. Lord Eldon, the youngest and most brilliant silk in the history of the law, is running the inquiry and there are thrills aplenty


Lord Eldon’s Bundaberg Hospital Commission of Inquiry provides an exciting protein injection into the fleshy arm of the Brisvegas legal business.

Row upon row of sleek counsel and serried ranks of dusty solicitors have been called into service as part of the investigation into the terrible mess at the Bundaberg hospital and the doings of Dr Jayant Patel, who the media has descriptively dubbed “Dr Death”.

Patel it turns out was not really a surgeon at all and was banned from practising in New York and found guilty of gross negligence in Oregon. The “curry muncher”, as Robert Hughes might have called him, has now left the Sunshine State for parts unknown.

imageAlongside Lord Eldon (aka Anthony John Hunter Morris QC) (seen here) the Deputy Commissioners are former politician Sir Llew Edwards and registered nurse Ms Margaret Vider. The Bjelke-Beattie government is forking out $5,000 a day to Eldon (a considerable discount on his normal fee) and $2,000 a day each for Sir Llew and Ms Vider.

There are three counsel assisting: David Andrews SC (son of the former CJ, Dormer George Andrews), Damian Atkinson (son of Sallyanne and an Eldon favourite), and Errol Morzone.

Opening day saw another 14 briefs at the bar table with accompanying instructing solicitors. Since then leave to appear has been given to a further brace of counsel.

It does seem a very elaborate and expensive arrangement to try and prove the proposition that not all Indians wash their hands before surgery.

Things got off to a rocky start when Sir Llew Edwards was the subject of some typical Brisvegan small mindedness concerning his wife’s public relations firm, which worked for the Medical Board of Queensland.

Some utterly negative type suggested Sir Llew faced a bit of a conflict since the Medical Board had been presiding over the Patel disaster at the Bundaberg Hospital at the time when “The Lady Edwards” (as Eldon refers to her) was in receipt of the board’s shilling.

His Lordship brilliantly refuted this rotten allegation in Ruling No.1 available for inspection on the commission of inquiry’s web site.

Since then he has had to modify his thinking and allow Sir Llew to see all evidence concerning the Medical Board for fear the former Deputy Premier would miss vital bits of evidence and so impair his deliberations.

Sir Llew is still not allowed to make relevant findings on matters touching upon the Medical Board, which raises the question as to just how useful he is on the commission.

imageRuling No.2 permitted the inquiry to be televised (we hope with plenty of lingering shots of His Lordship’s splendid visage, as captured here).

Another ruling from His Lordship allowed members of the public directly to put questions to the witnesses. This too is subject to rethinking as Ralph Devlin for the Medical Board has suggested that it would be more “practical” if those who want to pepper witnesses with questions do so through counsel assisting.

There have been tense moments surrounding the appearance of David Boddice SC. He thought he was briefed to appear for the main government agency at the heart of the crisis, Queensland Health.

But Lord Eldon did not give him leave to appear for that outfit because, among other things, it was not a “legal entity”. Boddice pointed out that Tubby Callinan (as he then was) was given leave to appear for the Police Department at the Fitzgerald inquiry, even though it was not a “legal entity”.

Initially Eldon said he could appear for the Director General of Health, then a few days later the commissioner said that Boddice could only appear for Queensland Health employees whose names are listed with the inquiry.

Anyway, the public hearings are gathering pace and I am there with my notebook to record some of the sparkling moments.

Day 1

Commissioner: ”... I can’t read my own handwriting…”
(T42 L39)

Commissioner: ”... Mr Andrews, I’m sorry, I’m getting a bit lost here and it’s almost certainly my fault…”
(T77 L21-22)

Day 4

Commissioner: ”... If it is anything like my e-mail in box you have invitations to buy degrees overseas and to prescribe generic Viagra…”

Day 5

Commissioner: ”... I am sorry. I am talking a lot today. I should learn to shut up…”
(T411 L12)

Commissioner: ”... one of the stories related to one of the Deputy Commissioners concerned an Area of Need doctor in North Queensland who was discovered after the event to be profoundly deaf, and that the doctor’s only means of communication was by lip reading in the Farsi language…”
T420 L 50-54)

imageAnd here’s how His Lordship (captured here being mauled by a hound) carefully explained that just because the commissioners might say things that seemed to indicate a concluded view, that was not at all the case:

Commissioner: ”... Those who are experienced with the processes of our courts throughout this country will realise that it’s a common thing for people sitting on the bench to express themselves in language intended to excite comment, response, to identify areas of interest and to encourage witnesses to be forthcoming in expressing their views, and sometimes the words used may come across to other people in the room as if the people sitting on the bench already have a concluded view on that matter…”
(T163 L42-50)

Here’s a masterful instance of how it works:

Commissioner: ”... What have you done since you were first told about this problem in October to achieve anything to save the lives of the patients who are being killed by Dr Patel?”
(T380 L9-11)

Then there was this spellbinding piece of evidence from Dr Miach, a respected specialist, when questioned by David Andrews as counsel assisting.

Mr Andrews: ”... Was one doctor you assessed a Dr Qureshi?

Dr Miach: ”... Yes, Dr Qureshi, I did assess him a few times, and I suspect you may know Dr Qureshi by now. But this was a gentleman – I wasn’t totally convinced he was a doctor at all. I know for a fact that if you want to buy a degree in Hong Kong or Bangkok, it is a piece of cake … this man was unbelievably incompetent. As well as that he had a number of other major flaws to his character. He initially worked in the accident/emergency department and they sort of threw him out of that … he then worked in the intensive care department and they threw him out of that as well. He had nowhere to go so, in fact, he arrived in the Department of Medicine, and I knew about this chap… I said ‘I don’t want this chap to work here. He’s sort of totally useless.’ ... I said, ‘If you want him to pay him, put him in the library and get him to read a book but he’s of no use to me. In fact he was caught sexually molesting and sexually harassing some of the patients and including one of the staff… Well the police turned up to sort of arrest him and someone tipped him off and off he went. He went off into the blue, into the mists…”
(T338 L45-56 T339 L1-45)

The commission itself will march on into the mists, with heaps of evidence to extract in the weeks and months ahead.

The Crime and Misconduct Commission also commenced an investigation in the deaths at Bundaberg Hospital but Bjelke-Beattie, for his own special reasons, thought that a few extra millions needed to be thrown at Lord Eldon’s Inquiry, with its own fully blown staff and resources.

Since then the CMC has closed down its hearings into the matter.

Sir Terence O’Rort reporting