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Apology applauded but more victims seek justice

Australia’s foremost legal advocate for victims of military abuse has told Lawyers Weekly “hundreds” of his clients did not make a formal submission to the DLA Piper inquiry.

Australia’s foremost legal advocate for victims of military abuse has told Lawyers Weekly “hundreds” of his clients did not make a formal submission to the DLA Piper inquiry.

Brian Briggs (pictured), the head of the military compensation group at Slater & Gordon, spoke to Lawyers Weekly in the wake of Monday’s (26 November) formal apology from Defence Minister Stephen Smith to victims of abuse in the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

Smith delivered the apology at the House of Representatives in Canberra after the DLA Piper report into military abuse found there were 775 plausible allegations of abuse that dated back to 1951.

Despite around three-quarters of more than 1000 allegations falling within the report’s terms of reference, Briggs said many more victims of abuse not featured in the DLA Piper report would also be seeking compensation.

“On the afternoon the apology was given I had four new enquiries from people that I have never heard from before,” he said. “People are still coming out of the woodwork.”

Just prior to delivering the apology, Smith also announced that an independent taskforce headed by Len Roberts-Smith QC would be formed to assess individual complaints. The taskforce would have the responsibility of determining whether victims of abuse are entitled to compensation, which is capped at $50,000 per victim.

“I don’t think the Minister or the Hon Len Roberts-Smith would have put a cap on it saying ‘you are not entitled to compensation unless you went to DLA’,” said Briggs. “They will broaden it to cover other victims.”

While ruling out a Royal Commission that broadly looks at abuse in the military, the taskforce will specifically look at whether there should be a Royal Commission into the sexual abuse of young sailors on HMAS Leeuwin in the 1960s and 1970s, and 24 alleged cases of rape at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in the 1990s.

“That is where a Royal Commission could serve a real purpose,” said Briggs, who acts for multiple alleged rape victims who served in the military. “Especially the ADFA 24: if that has been covered up, then something has to be done about that.

“A Royal Commission could make recommendations and it could refer those matters to the prosecuting authorities, especially if there are people still serving who were part of that.”

Delays and no comment
The Minister has staggered the release of information from the DLA Piper inquiry since it was first announced in April 2011, shortly after the Skype sex scandal at the ADFA.

Shortly after the inquiry was set up, its three principle authors, Melanie McKean, Gary Rumble and Dennis Pearce, left DLA Piper to join the fledgling Canberra office of HWL Ebsworth.

The three defecting senior DLA Piper lawyers continued to work alongside around 60 of their former colleagues on the report via a specially arranged contractual arrangement.

In July this year the whole of the first volume of the DLA Piper report was released, detailing abuse that included numerous accounts of rape, sexual assault and bullying in the ADF.

One victim of abuse that spoke to Lawyers Weekly at that time detailed three instances of abuse on three separate vessels while serving with the Royal Australian Navy in the 1970s.

“My youth was stolen,” he said.

Despite more than 1100 reports of abuse being received by DLA Piper by January this year, it took until this week, more than four months since the release of volume one of the report, for a compensation scheme to be established.

Last month, the report was referred to the Senate’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Reference Committee as criticism mounted that the Government was taking too long to make formal recommendations and compensate victims of abuse.

Both HWL Ebsworth and DLA Piper declined to comment when contacted by Lawyers Weekly for this story.

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