Slow justice damaging political culture
Like us all, Dr Hartwich (below) knows that all the delay in investigating Craig Thomson is needed to keep Labor in power but he uses comparisons to highlight how corrupt the whole charade is
The wheels of justice grind slowly, but perhaps even more so in Australia. Comparing the speed of Fair Work Australia’s investigation into Labor backbencher Craig Thomson to a snail’s pace is unfair to common molluscs. Following the three-year-long inquiry into Thomson’s alleged misuse of a union credit card is rather like watching tectonic plates drift.
Does it really need to be this way? Is this how such affairs should be dealt with in a liberal democracy?
As it turns out, other mature democracies are more rigorous about similar accusations of personal misconduct. Rather than letting proceedings drag on behind closed doors for years as in the Thomson saga, other countries are quicker in initiating formal criminal proceedings. And even before the results of such trials are announced, there is often enough public pressure on office holders to vacate their positions.
Consider the British MPs who were indicted of false accounting in the parliamentary expenses scandal. After a newspaper had revealed their fraudulent claims in May 2009, they were formally charged in February 2010. Their political parties deselected them from the following election; prison sentences between nine and 18 months were delivered between January and July 2011. Having served a quarter of their sentences, they have meanwhile been released under conditions.
From the first public allegations to court trial to imprisonment and conditional release, the British expenses scandal was shorter than Fair Work Australia’s initial investigation into Thomson.
Losing office can be even faster in Germany. Last Friday, President Christian Wulff resigned after the Lower Saxon state prosecution service had formally requested the suspension of his legal immunity. This followed newspaper reports claiming Wulff had accepted gifts from business friends in return for favourable treatment.
The threat of preliminary proceedings was enough to force the president to resign. Although Wulff maintained his innocence in his resignation speech, he argued that public doubts over his personal credibility would make it impossible for him to exercise the office of head of state.
Wulff’s departure barely took nine weeks. But even that was considered too long by most German commentators, who claimed that public trust in democracy had been damaged by Wulff clinging to power. By staying to long, they argued, Wulff had done a disservice to himself and the office of president.
The speed with which both Britain and Germany have dealt with claims of personal misconduct was quite appropriate in both cases. For the democratic system to be trusted, it is vital there are no lingering doubts about elected office holders. Substantial claims need to be dealt with quickly, and in court, to avert harming the integrity of the political system.
Surely Australia would not want to copy the Italian example in which criminal proceedings against former Prime Minister Berlusconi have been dragging on for years, not least because of political interference.
In any case, even something as slow-moving as tectonic plates may eventually result in an earthquake.
Overcharging cases against Keddies lawyers going slowly nowhere
The moment is here, if not overdue, for us to get up to speed on the latest twists and turns of the Keddies saga. Not only is this one of the most awful cases where lawyers are alleged to have conspicuously and consistently overcharged their clients, as reported in a long-running Herald investigation, but it shows the failure of the legal profession as a self-regulator.
While lawyers may admire the skills with which their own can duck and weave through the system, the public - the consumers of legal services - would view the charade with the contempt it deserves.
A Sydney law firm run by Stephen Firth is acting for more than 100 former clients of Keddies, suing the former partners for the return of overcharged fees. It gives rise to issues of breach of duty, deceit, misrepresentation, and false and misleading conduct.
It is understood another law firm, Wang & Associates, is acting for close to another 100 former clients of Keddies. Just about all of them were involved in accident compensation cases.
In November, it became clear that some of Firth's clients were being approached by anonymous third parties and offered cash to settle their overcharging claims.
This happened behind the back of their new legal representatives.
Firth sought an injunction in the Supreme Court to stop it. The unnamed agents were effectively acting for both the plaintiffs and the defendants.
Robert Stitt, QC, acting for Firth and the clients who were being peeled away, put it to Justice Michael Adams: "An unknown, charitable white knight was going around the suburbs with piles of cash and deeds of release … It's so offensive, that it should be brought to heel."
At this stage, about six of Firth's clients had been approached before their overcharging cases against the former Keddies partners (Tony Barakat, Scott Roulstone and Russell Keddie) had been listed for hearing in the District Court.
It emerged that some of the third-party agents arranging these backdoor settlements were former employees of Keddies.
Undertakings were given to the court by lawyers for Keddies that this would not happen again and, in fact, Adams made orders seeking to prevent Keddies or its agents communicating with former clients who were suing them.
Evidence was presented that in breach of the undertaking and orders, Roulstone had signed a cheque payable to a disgruntled, overcharged client. Roulstone is a former vice-president of the NSW Law Society.
On December 6, Adams asked Barakat, Roulstone and Keddie to show cause why they should not be dealt with for contempt of court. He wanted them in court the next day, as they would probably need to be cross-examined.
"This is serious … There better be a good explanation," the judge said.
On the day, Chris Branson, QC, for the Keddies trio, submitted that the contempt hearing required a properly drawn-up charge, giving full particulars of the alleged offence.
It was all put off until December 12, with Adams saying: "I would like to put on record my grave disapproval" of the attitude of the Keddies partners, particularly Roulstone.
Meanwhile, as part of the District Court overcharging cases, Judge Susan Gibb ordered two barristers, David Campbell, SC, and Tim Meakes, who acted for Keddies clients, to produce documents which divulged the fees they charged in a number of accident compensation settlements.
Campbell and Meakes sought leave to appeal that decision and were turned down on January 31 by the Court of Appeal (in this case, Justices Tony Meagher and Reg Barrett).
Back in Adams's court, things were hotting up. Instead of the contempt hearing coming on in the new year, the judge was asked by Keddies to stand down from the hearing on the ground of apprehended bias. Firth's lawyers protested that this was just another bout of tactical stalling.
Adams delivered judgment on that matter on February 3, rejecting the application and saying that no reasonable person could think he had been biased in the conduct of the proceedings. The contempt hearing was then relisted for February 16.
But on February 9, the Court of Appeal granted Barakat, Roulstone and Keddie a stay of the contempt case against them and gave leave to appeal Adams's refusal to disqualify himself on the grounds of apprehended bias.
The damages case that Firth has also brought against the Keddies trio seems to be stayed as well.
We are now at an indeterminate point. The courts, the disciplinary authorities and the Law Society have to sit on their hands and whistle while these long-winded excursions take their course.
Not a finger has been laid on these lawyers. They all retain the right to practise and they all have a right to contest every single step to hold them to account for the rapacious way some of their former clients were scalped.
Weather watchers confess long-distance vision dodgy
THE weather bureau has revealed Day Seven of its long-range forecasts is wrong most of the time.
The bloopers include a "mostly sunny" outlook one week out from the disastrous Christmas Day hail storms.
"Isolated showers" were the long-range forecast for February 4 last year - the day Melbourne was swamped by flash flooding.
The 40 per cent accuracy rate for Day Seven temperatures is less than what the Day One forecast was 50 years ago, according to data compiled for the Herald Sun.
Weather bureau spokeswoman Andrea Peace has defended the use of seven-day forecasting, but admitted the uncertainty increased dramatically from the four-day mark.
"We use the main global models that are considered to be the best, and there can still be days where even for tomorrow they can all give conflicting results," Ms Peace said.
"The need is still there but people have to understand that it's a guide, it's an outlook and there's a strong possibility that it will change as you get closer to the day."
"Severe weather" was forecast closer to Christmas Day, but thousands of Melburnians were caught out by the storms, with hailstones and flash flooding causing tens of millions of dollars in damage.
Ms Peace said it was difficult to determine the severity of thunderstorms 24 hours out.
The figures show Day One forecasts are more accurate than ever with an 85 per cent strike rate in 2011. And the number of forecast failures - an error margin of 5C or more - was just three last year, 10 times fewer than in 1962. The Day One error margin has halved in 50 years to just over 1C, while the Day Seven forecast averaged a 2.5C error last year.
Ms Peace said technological advances had combined to hone forecasts over the years.
"As we get better computing power, the size of the grids is going to get smaller and smaller, so the computer models will be able to resolve smaller, more localised weather phenomena," she said.
Bureaucrats lose one
I am not at all anti-vaccine but I certainly detest bureaucrats abusing their power
The New South Wales Supreme Court has ruled the state's Health Care Complaints Commission should not have issued a public warning against a prominent anti-vaccination group.
The Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) took the court action after the commission (HCCC) after the warning against it was issued in July 2010.
The HCCC issued the warning after the network failed to comply with its recommendation to disclose on its website that the group's purpose was to provide anti-vaccination information.
The network argued the commission did not have the authority to issue such a warning.
This morning the Supreme Court has agreed the HCCC was not within its jurisdiction to do so.
In 2010 the commission said it had established the network's website contained incorrect and misleading information, and quoted selectively from research. [Rather like orthodox medical research papers, in other words]