ANY SCHEME for compensating James Hardie victims should ensure that their common law rights are maintained and that they are entitled to be legally represented, the Law Council of Australia (LCA) has announced.
The assertions by the LCA follow the handing down of the final report by Commissioner David Jackson QC, and the inquiry into Australia’s largest asbestos manufacturer.
The Jackson Report, released 21 September, argues that James Hardie Industries has an obligation to meet the asbestos liabilities. “[The company] still has in its pocket the profits made by dealing in asbestos, and those profits are large enough to satisfy most, perhaps all, of the claims of victims and its senior officers,” the report states.
James Hardie has stood by its proposal for statutory compensation for asbestos victims, which received cautious support in the recently released report. A spokesperson for Hardie said it was “working out the best way to put flesh on the bones” of the statutory scheme proposal, The Australian Financial Review reported. The company proposes that through this means, in which legal bills would be cut, all victims’ claims would be met.
LCA president Stephen Southwood QC has said that further consideration should be given to procedural reforms, “which would make the processing of claims quicker and more efficient and which would minimise the legal costs of such proceedings”.
The LCA suggested that proposals for reform of corporations law, put forward by the Jackson Report, could be too hasty and that further detailed enquiry should be undertaken before there are any amendments to the Corporations Act 2001, which would “enable the corporate veil to be pierced”. All proposals should be considered by a body such as the Corporations and Markets Advisory Committee, the LCA said.
The LCA supported further consideration of reforms that would mean unforseen claims are covered in case of insolvency.
“The Law Council supports further examination of the voluntary administration and liquidation provisions of the Corporations Act in order to consider reforms aimed at taking into account long-tail claims in instances of corporate insolvency,” Southwood said.
There has been mounting political pressure on James Hardie to pay asbestos liabilities in full. Treasurer Peter Costello said he had written to Hardie Industries saying the Government thought the company should fund all claims unconditionally.
The Australian Labor Party has returned $77,500 in donations made by James Hardie since February 2001. Prime Minister John Howard announced this week that the Liberal Party would also hand back political donations. At state and national level, the Liberal and National parties have received $78,000 since February 2001 and have faced pressure from bodies, including the Australian Council of Trade Unions, to donate that money to asbestos victims.