22 August, 2011
Further legal representation for quake victims’ families announced
The Government will fund further legal assistance for families of Canterbury earthquake victims, Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson said today.
Government will appoint a new Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Building Failure Caused by the Canterbury and Christchurch Earthquakes, with a specific focus on representing the interests of the families who lost loved ones in the 22 February 2011 earthquake.
On Sunday the Attorney-General met with some families of Canterbury earthquake victims to hear concerns about their level of representation in the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Building Failure Caused by the Canterbury and Christchurch Earthquakes process.
Two main issues were raised at Sunday’s meeting with families.
“The families at the meeting felt they needed to fully understand what was happening in the Royal Commission of Inquiry process, including the legal and technical aspects,” Mr Finlayson said. “This is a complex process, and this kind of inquiry is not always easily accessible to non-lawyers, without specialist professional assistance.”
“Second, a number of family members felt that they had not had the opportunity to fully present their evidence and have it recorded by Counsel yet,” Mr Finlayson said. “It is important that their evidence is recorded in a timely fashion and that Counsel are available to assist with this.”
“While the Royal Commission has been doing a very good job, I feel that further legal assistance is justified. We will therefore be appointing an additional Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission, who will have a specific focus on representing the interests of the families who lost loved ones in the 22 February 2011 earthquake."
Legal assistance for families of victims has to this point been provided in the form of two Counsel assisting the Commission. Senior lawyers, Stephen Mills QC and Mark Zarifeh, were appointed as independent Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission. Counsel Assisting have a duty to bring all relevant material and evidence to the Royal Commission that will allow its terms of reference to be met. The Counsel Assisting have used the powers of investigation under the Commissions of Inquiry Act to request a wide range of information and expert advice on matters relevant to the inquiry.
“Given the large number of families involved, and their different needs and levels of engagement with the Royal Commission process, it is appropriate that the lawyer appointed to represent their interests is part of the Royal Commission,” Mr Finlayson said. “We will talk to the families about the process for appointing the additional Counsel Assisting.”
“The Royal Commission has already appointed a Family and Community Liaison Officer to liaise with bereaved families and respond to their concerns. The additional Counsel Assisting will work closely with the Family and Community Liaison Officer and the families themselves to make sure their interests are addressed and questions are answered, within the parameters of the terms of reference.”
As the cost of an additional Counsel Assisting cannot be met from within the Royal Commission's existing budget, Government will provide additional funding to cover this. An initial estimate of costs is approximately $375,000.
The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Building Failure Caused by the Canterbury and Christchurch Earthquakes is the highest highest level independent fact-finding body that a government can convene. It is strictly independent in carrying out its terms of reference, looking at why certain buildings collapsed in the earthquakes, leading to loss of life, and how this can be prevented from happening again.
It is an inquisitorial inquiry, and the Royal Commission has broad powers under the Commissions of Inquiry Act to obtain evidence and information, ensuring that no stone is left unturned.