Friday, February 11, 2005

E-mail to coroner an open-ended threat: QC

So this is what happens when coroners *don't* support the preferred government spin*_*_*

ACT Coroner Maria Doogan had failed to distance herself from an e-mail sent by her senior counsel which was described yesterday as an "open-ended threat", possibly against government employees being treated fairly in the 2003 bushfires inquiry, the ACT Supreme Court heard.

Richard Tracey, QC, counsel for the ACT Government, also told the Supreme Court yesterday that one witness to the inquiry, government media officer Marika Harvey, was treated "unduly harshly" by Mrs Doogan when Ms Harvey gave evidence in March last year.

That differential treatment of Ms Harvey could lead a fairminded observer to fear that her evidence would not be dealt with impartially in the inquiry, he said.

Mr Tracey continued throughout yesterday to detail examples which he argued gave cause for Mrs Doogan to be disqualified from the coronial inquiry on the grounds of an apprehension of bias - that is, a perception of bias rather than actual bias.

Jim Glissan, QC, counsel for nine individuals also seeking Mrs Doogan's disqualification, is expected to address the court. Her clients include former chief fire control officer Peter Lucas-Smith and former Emergency Services Bureau executive director Mike Castle.

He will be followed by Julian Burnside, QC, counsel for the Director of Public Prosecutions, which is supporting Mrs Doogan.

Mr Tracey said there were three issues which were enough to justify Mrs Doogan's disqualification. These were: Her field trip to the Bendora fire ignition point which was not revealed until eight months later and from which notes were produced but then withheld from other parties.

The "gratuitous and unwarranted" remarks Mrs Doogan had made against lawyers representing the ACT and individuals when they "properly" requested access to a range of documents including the notes made by expert witness Phil Cheney on the field trip.

Mrs Doogan had accused the lawyers of "seeking to impugn the integrity" of the inquiry. And Mrs Doogan's failure to disavow herself from the infamous "They'll get theirs Phil" e-mail.

The court heard that Mr Cheney in November 2003 sent an e-mail to Lex Lasry, QC, senior counsel assisting Mrs Doogan.

It referred to comments made earlier by Chief Minister Jon Stanhope in the Legislative Assembly about Mr Cheney.

Mr Cheney had written in the e-mail, "I guess it's an indication of what their tactic will be."

By Megan Doherty posted 11 February 05

Ed: Differential treatment of witnesses at a coronial inquest? Why that's simply unheard of, isn't it?