PERTH FIRM Lavan Legal has teamed up with the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia (ALSWA) to help bring up to 1,000 Stolen Generation compensation claims to court.
Lavan Legal general counsel, Martin Bennett, says the project idea first emerged after the firm approached the ALSWA last August to discuss unrelated, criminal pro bono work.
The meeting, however, brought to the fore a more pressing issue; how ALSWA could deal with what was then 600-plus opened files relating to the Stolen Generation, plus another 400 or 500 queries on the back of the Trevorrow decision becoming known.
“They had very limited resources as a result of so much of their attention being devoted to criminal matters. They effectively only had one civil law solicitor to deal with all those cases,” Bennett said.
In the landmark decision in Trevorrow v State of South Australia (No 5) (2007) SASR 136, handed down in August law year, the South Australian Supreme Court awarded Stolen Generation victim Bruce Trevorrow $525,000 as compensation for being unlawfully removed from his mother in 1957.
This was Australia’s first ever successful Stolen Generation compensation claim, earlier claims having been thwarted by limitation period defences.
Bennet believes that the reasoning in Trevorrow could now be applied in Western Australia to side-step the limitation period obstacle, despite the fact that the Western Australian Limitation Act differs somewhat from its South Australian counterpart.
“We obtained a preliminary opinion from two professors at Oxford University about the applicability of the Trevorrow decision to Western Australian legislation, and they essentially gave us the green light,” he said.
The firm, which will be working with ALSWA on a pro bono basis, is enlisting the help of up to 50 volunteer legal students from Western Australian law schools. The students, known as the “Lavan League”, will assist in reviewing the claims with the aim of identifying some lead cases to take to court. Bennett said that the students’ work will be overseen bypartners in the firm and that the students would receive counselling before they begin, to help them cope with the distressing nature of the victims’ stories.
“We’re not going to let them start on these files without giving them some stress counselling and some techniques for dealing with this, because you need to read these files with a box of tissues with you. They’re hard to read, even if you’re experienced,” he said.
According to Bennett, the project has also received enormous support from all levels of Lavan Legal staff. “We emailed our staff and asked who would like to volunteer, emphasising that it wasn’t obligatory, and we had more than 50 per cent of the firm volunteering within the first week; from secretaries and administration staff, to solicitors, senior associates and partners,” he said.
The firm has incorporated a separate body, the Lavan Institute for Public Interest Law, which will be charged with overseeing the project. The institute will also be seeking financial assistance from the Western Australian corporate community to help cover the substantial disbursement costs involved with bringing the proceedings, Bennett estimating the filing costs alone to be over $600,000.
According to Bennett, the firm and ALSWA hadn’t intended to formally announce the project until later, but they were forced to prematurely release a media statement last week after a letter from the Notre Dame University dean of law to the student body, urging them to take part in the project, was leaked to a radio station.