In the wake of a damning report into abuse in the armed services, a leading military lawyer has claimed to Lawyers Weekly that those who committed abuse include serving senior officers.
On Tuesday (10 July), volume 1 of the DLA Piper report into allegations of sexual and other abuse in defence was released by Stephen Smith, the Federal Minister for Defence.
Slater & Gordon military compensation group leader Brian Briggs (pictured) told Lawyers Weekly he was shocked by the seriousness of the abuse in many instances and he claimed that many of the perpetrators have gone on to rise through to senior positions in the ADF.
He also said there were many other instances of abuse in the military relayed to him by victims that were not included in the report.
“A lot of the inquiries I have got from people have named quite senior members of the ADF that are still in the military,” said Briggs, stressing these were untested allegations. “In certain instances for those senior officers, it was part of their training and part of the ‘toughening up’ process.”
The report included 775 allegations of abuse in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The report said the “overwhelming majority” of these allegations were “plausible”.
The allegations of abuse include more than 20 allegations of rape and numerous allegations of sexual assault and molestation.
The most common form of abuse reported was bullying.
The instances of abuse referred to in the report also included many counts of the abuse of minors. The report covers abuse over a 60 year period, from 1951 to 2011.
In releasing the report, Defence Minister Smith said the allegations were “deeply concerning and would be treated very seriously”.
Lawyers Weekly spoke to a victim of the abuse in the defence force on the condition of anonymity.
He initially contacted DLA Piper to relay his experiences of abuse in the military, but found the process to lodge a formal complaint difficult. He felt the firm should have discussed some of his allegations prior to releasing the report.
He said that as a minor in the Royal Australian Navy in the early 1970s he was abused on three separate occasions while serving on three different vessels, including being sodomised by a broom handle.
He went on to serve in the navy until 1991 and said the abuse he suffered has been a major factor in a later diagnosis of depression and relationship break-ups. The former sailor has been married four times.
“My youth was stolen,” he said. “I don’t want an apology, but I do believe I am entitled to compensation.”
The1567 page report was handed to the Defence Minister in October 2011, but the full report was only released this week.
On 7 March the Defence Minister released extracts from the executive summary and key findings. Briggs said there was no reason why the Minister could not have released the report earlier.
“Why did we have to wait nine months for this?" said Briggs, a long-time advocate for victims of military abuse. “I didn’t see the point in hanging onto it and I am angry it was not released earlier.”
In the release of extracts from the executive summary in March, the report said a number of remedies could be used to compensate victims. This included a personal apology from the Prime Minister, a Royal Commission and a capped compensation scheme.
Briggs believes that a national apology and the provision of ex-gratia payments to victims would provide the best form of compensation.
“I don’t think it would take long to set-up an ex-gratia scheme at all,” he said. “It wouldn’t be difficult. Instead of diverting all of these resources into inquiries and paying lawyers to make more inquiries they already have information there to compensate victims.”
Briggs also ruled out Slaters launching a class action on the back of the release of the full report.
“While there is a common thread of abuse in the military, that is a very generic term and every instance and circumstance is different, with many different victims and perpetrators.
“It is not like running the Vioxx class action where you had the one drug doing everything.”
Despite being called the DLA Piper report, its three principle authors - Melanie McKean, Professor Dennis Pearce and Dr Gary Rumble - all left that firm to join HWL Ebsworth shortly after the inquiry was announced in April 2011.
McKean is now a partner at HWL Ebsworth and Pearce and Rumble are special counsels in the Canberra office of the firm. Despite leaving DLA, they continued to act on the inquiry that bore their old firm’s name on a contractural arrangement.
DLA Piper had previously told Lawyers Weekly that an additional 60 senior and junior lawyers also worked on the report.
In 2010-11 DLA Piper received $19.7 million in legal fees from the Federal Government. While it is not known how much it has been paid to conduct the review, it is estimated it would be several millions of dollars.
Lawyers Weekly approached HWL Ebsworth to speak with the report’s authors but that request was declined.