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Friday, 5 October 1984
Page: 1331


Senator MACKLIN —Has the Attorney-General seen a telex addressed to the Prime Minister from the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association concerning the grant of legal aid? Is it true that the Association was told on Friday 7 September, that it would receive funds towards the engagement of a junior counsel, a solicitor, reasonable disbursements, air travel, assistance with office space and resources for counsel and solicitor? Is it true that the person responsible for the advice given to the Association overturned that so that on the following Tuesday the Association was notified that its grant would be substantially reduced to cover a part of a junior counsel's services, office space and resources? Is this the way that legal aid is determined by the Attorney-General and does the Minister agree that in fact such a reduction in legal aid to the Association will seriously hamper its case to the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia between 1952 and 1963?


Senator GARETH EVANS —This is an example of the kinds of problems that are besetting all governments around the country with legal aid delivery generally, and in particular in the context of the burgeoning proliferation of commissions of inquiry and royal commissions of one kind or another. The sequence of events here is as follows: In its decision to establish the McClelland Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia between 1952 and 1963, the Government agreed to the provision of financial assistance towards the legal costs of persons or orgaisations given leave to appear before the Commission, with the extent of that assistance to be determined by me as Attorney-General and by the Minister for Finance. On 7 September, following applications the resolution of which was sought to be made with great urgency, the solicitors of the following bodies were notified of my approval, given earlier that day, of financial assistance for legal representation as follows: To the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association of New South Wales, junior counsel plus solicitor; to the Maralinga and Monte Bello Atomic Ex-Servicemen's Association, the same. The Australian Nuclear Veterans Associations of both Queensland and South Australia were to have a solicitor each and a shared junior counsel. That was the original decision, made against a background of urgently pressed demands that legal aid resources be made available so that proofs of evidence could be prepared for a sitting early the following week.

Following that decision a number of questions were asked within the Government and further detailed consideration was given to the question of legal aid that was appropriate for these bodies, and indeed a review of the whole of the Government's expenditure on the Royal Commission was undertaken. That review produced in my mind clear conclusions that the four bodies concerned had a very large measure of common interest and that, while they certainly needed the resources of their own solicitors to get together the proofs of evidence, the actual presentation of their evidence could well be done by a single counsel- that indeed to do otherwise would tend to unmercifully protract the proceedings- but, moreover, that there should be provision that, in the event that a conflict of interest did arise between the respective organisations, the Government should make some commitment to ensure that counsel were available to enable the competing viewpoints to be expressed.

Bearing all that in mind and bearing in mind the very great savings in both time and money that would result if some of these resources could be aggregated, a decision was made four days later, on 11 September, to review the original decision and reduce the legal aid grant insofar as personnel were concerned to just one junior counsel for all of the four organisations plus the solicitor resources that I have mentioned. Further discussions have taken place subsequently. Just a couple of days ago, on 3 October, I advised the solicitors for the respective organisations that, instead of a junior counsel, as was originally proposed, it would now be possible for the Government to meet their further demands for a senior counsel in substitution for the junior counsel. Indeed, a very appropriate gentelman from the New South Wales Bar has accepted that brief at what will be an additional cost to the Commonwealth of about $32, 000 over the period, but still at a saving overall of close to three-quarters of a million dollars on what would have been the original cost had counsel been given to all of them.

I repeat the assurance that I hope has been communicated to the respective organisations that, in the event that a genuine conflict of interest arises, the Commonwealth will of course be sympathetic to that and be prepared to assist in making counsel available to make sure that those competing interests are resolved. However, I rather suspect that the reason for demanding separate representation at the advocacy level as distinct from the preparation of proofs has more to do with other considerations than with those going to the most effective presentation of the nuclear veterans' case. As such I believe the Commonwealth was justified in its decision, although changing decisions midstream is not a course to be recommended. I readily acknowledge the force of the criticism in that respect.