Three ex-DLA Piper lawyers who defected to HWL Ebsworth have continued to help their old firm earn millions in fees from an inquiry into allegations of abuse in the Defence Force.
Melanie McKean, Dr Gary Rumble and Professor Dennis Pearce were amongst a host of DLA Piper partners and consultants that left the firm last year to establish an office for HWL Ebsworth in Canberra.
McKean left the firm in August, while Pearce and Rumble joined HWL Ebsworth in October, the same month the firm officially opened its Canberra office.
In April 2011, Defence Minister Stephen Smith appointed DLA to act on an inquiry into allegations of abuse in the armed forces, with McKean, Rumble and Pearce heading that inquiry.
With the completed second volume of the report due to be handed down by the end of this month (the first tranche of Volume One was handed to the Minister in October), a spokesperson from HWL Ebsworth has confirmed with Lawyers Weekly that Rumble, McKean and Pearce continue to head the review via a contractual arrangement with DLA Piper.
DLA Piper received $19.7 million in legal fees from the Federal Government for the 2010-11 financial year. A report in the Herald Sun this week has alleged the firm will bill more than $6 million for its work with the review.
Brian Briggs, the head of the military compensation group at Slater & Gordon, has criticised the cost of the inquiry and believes the money would have been better spent establishing an ex-gratia scheme for the 1000-odd alleged victims who have made submissions to the inquiry.
"Ten million dollars (the estimated cost of the inquiry) would have gone a long way to satisfy a lot of claims," said Briggs when speaking to Lawyers Weekly. "That money would have probably been better directed to the victims of the abuse as opposed to paying lawyers."
Briggs has been a long-time campaigner for an ex-gratia scheme for members of the Defence Force that have been found to be abused, and he claims that the current system of military compensation is flawed, with many alleged victims who have made submissions to the inquiry not able to be compensated as the alleged abuse occurred before 1988.
"There were over 1,100 claims submitted to DLA Piper through this inquiry - and the majority of these people will get nothing," he said.
The appropriateness of DLA Piper acting on the review, given its close relationship with the Department of Defence, has previously been called into question. On 19 October last year, the Federal Opposition used Senate Estimates hearings to question the firm's independence, given that DLA Piper is on all 15 of the Department of Defence and Defence Material Organisation (DMO) legal panels.
"One would have to ask why the government has chosen a firm that doesn't appear to be independent," said Briggs.
Lawyers Weekly approached DLA Piper for comment, but the firm's client relationship partner for Defence, Anthony Willis, was on leave and unavailable to be interviewed.
Last month, Defence Minister Stephen Smith said the report's recommendations and findings will be "considered carefully and methodically".
It is expected that aspects of the report will not be made public.