Survivors of the HMAS Voyager disaster will finally give evidence against the Victorian solicitor accused of double-billing them in one of Australia’s longest-running compensation battles.
Around seven complaints against David Forster are expected to be heard in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) on 5 June, five years after legal proceedings began and 50 years since the sinking of HMAS Voyager (pictured is the first HMAS Voyager) off Jervis Bay.
The June hearing will be the first time the plaintiffs will give evidence against Forster, whose firm Hollows Lawyers handled 89 of the 214 personal injury claims against the Federal Government by survivors of the 1964 disaster.
In the meantime, the courts have been handling disciplinary and receivership cases involving Forster, drawn out by numerous appeals, in tandem with the compensation case.
The Legal Services Board (LSB) has been battling to have Forster banned from legal practice for four years. The board succeeded last month (14 February) when Forster lost a High Court appeal to have his practising certificate reinstated.
In 2012, Forster lost another dispute with the Legal Services Board in the Supreme Court. On this occasion he was convicted and sentenced to one month in jail, suspended for 12 months, for contempt of court.
The matter related to a court order from February 2011. Forster had been prohibited from contacting lawyers retained by the LSB after he sent a letter to the LSB’s barrister Kristine Hanscombe SC, in which he said he was having “emotionally very disturbing thoughts” about her.
In October 2012, Forster breached the court order when he sent an email to Hanscombe that was intended to intimidate her and cause her to withdraw from proceedings against him.
It also came to light in a later decision by an appellate court that Forster had repeatedly called Hanscombe a “monster” during a VCAT hearing in 2010.
These disciplinary proceedings have been running alongside a $7 million lawsuit launched by receivers brought in to recoup money from the now defunct Hollows Lawyers. Receivers Hall & Wilcox were appointed by the Victorian Supreme Court in 2010.
Last month (10 February), around 50 survivors and another 200 family members were aboard the landing ship HMAS Choules to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voyager disaster.
A total of 82 people were killed when the navy destroyer HMAS Voyager collided with the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne during a night training exercise. There were 232 survivors.
Forster opened files for his Voyager clients in 2000. The Commonwealth had appointed barrister Jeremy Gormly to settle the claims and arrange for funds to be transferred to the various law firms acting for claimants.
The Commonwealth paid Hollows Lawyers $23 million to settle its clients’ claims.
In 2008, irregularities in Hollows’ trust accounts were discovered during an inspection of by the Law Institute of Victoria, which had been prompted by complaints from clients.
NB: Pictured is the first HMAS Voyager, with the picture taken prior to 1955. It was the second HMAS Voyager, commisioned in 1957, which collided with HMAS Melbourne in 1964