Lawyers at opposite ends of defence law have called for a national apology from the Federal Government to victims of abuse in the Defence Force.
On 7 March, Defence Minister Stephen Smith released redacted extracts from the executive summary and key findings from Volume 1 of the DLA Piper Report into allegations of sexual and other abuse in Defence.
It found that 775 people who fell within the inquiry’s terms of reference had “plausible allegations of abuse”.
“The findings, issues and recommendations of Part 1 Volume 1 are serious and concerning,” said Smith. “They identify specific and systematic issues requiring further consideration by government.”
Smith appointed DLA to act on the inquiry in April 2011. Despite the report’s three principle authors, Melanie McKean, Dr Gary Rumble and Professor Dennis Pearce, defecting to HWL Ebsworth shortly after the inquiry was announced, the trio continued to act on the inquiry via a contractual arrangement with DLA Piper.
The findings of the inquiry released by Smith this week were handed to him in October last year.
In identifying options to provide reparations for victims of abuse, it called on either the Prime Minister or Defence Minister to apologise on behalf of the nation, with the acknowledgement that “current and former ADF members have in the past suffered sexual and other abuse which they should not have suffered”.
Brian Briggs (pictured), the head of the military compensation group at Slater & Gordon, said the nature of the abuse involved and the high numbers of people affected means that a formal expression of remorse from the Federal Government is warrranted.
“There should be a significant public apology made to victims of abuse in the Defence Force from the Federal Government,” he told Lawyers Weekly. “Such an apology would cost nothing and would recognise the enormous toll this has taken on victims.”
Briggs has been a vocal critic of the system of military compensation. He has previously criticised the terms of reference of the inquiry and the appropriateness of DLA Piper acting on the review, given that DLA Piper is on all 15 of the Department of Defence and Defence Material Organisation (DMO) legal panels.
While he welcomed the release of the executive summary, he said that some of the other recommendations, such as a private facilitated resolution where the victims and perpetrators of abuse would meet and the appointment of an independent overseer to oversee recommendations from the review should be received with caution.
“Of the clients I have that are victims of abuse, the last thing they want to do is see the perpetrator,” he said. “I also question how independent the proposed overseer will be. If it is someone who is connected with DLA Piper who, as far as I am aware, has never run a claim on behalf of victims, then I would question its independence.”
Abuse serious, but no need for Royal Commission
The report canvassed a number of methods that could be used to compensate victims. These included bringing an action in the courts; seeking compensation under the statutory compensation schemes that cover Defence personnel; and applying for a financial payment under the Commonwealth’s discretionary compensation schemes.
However, McKean, Rumble and Pearce deemed that none of those measures should be used to compensate victims.
“The review considers that none of these mechanisms will be appropriate in most cases of past abuse because of the cost involved and the difficulties of establishing liability / eligibility.”
The review also vetoed a Royal Commission, judicial inquiry or parliamentary Committee as being “too formal and cumbersome for the task of identifying persons who might be deserving of reparation”.
Despite the inquiry’s three leading members having left DLA Piper shortly after the review was announced, the firm’s client relationship partner for Defence, Anthony Willis, told Lawyers Weekly late last year that more than 60 junior and senior lawyers from the firm continued to be involved.
DLA Piper received $19.7 million in legal fees from the Federal Government for the 2010-11 financial year.
Defence Minister Smith said the final report of Volume 2 is due to be released by the end of March.