Inquest into 30 deaths 'a whitewash'

- October 1st, 2007
Author: Janine MacDonald

A CORONIAL inquest into the deaths of 30 Aborigines in the Kimberley region of Western Australia is under threat after thelawyer acting for many of thefamilies pulled out, citing inadequate funding.

Fitzroy Crossing Aboriginal leader Joe Ross has also attacked the inquest - due to begin in Derby on Thursday and covering the towns of Fitzroy Crossing, Kununurra and Broome - dismissing it as a "whitewash" and calling for a boycott.

Lawyer John Hammond, who is acting for the families of 15 of those who died, said he advised his clients yesterday that he could no longer represent them because of inadequate funding.

The state Government has pledged $20,000 to the Kimberley Aboriginal Legal and Cultural Centre to fund legal representation and to conduct meetings in preparation for the inquest.

But Mr Hammond said the $10,000 for legal costs would barely cover the airfares and accommodation in the towns across the Kimberley where the inquest will take place, and the Government had failed to respond to a letter sent two weeks ago, requesting $50,000 for legal expenses.

Western Australia Coroner Alistair Hope will investigate nearly 30 alcohol and cannabis-related deaths in the troubled indigenous communities of the Kimberley, including 20 deaths in the grog-ravaged town of Fitzroy Crossing. The deaths in the town include seven suicides, four drownings, two hit-and-runs and four deaths on licensed premises.

Mr Ross, whose two-year-old nephew drowned in the Fitzroy River last month after wandering away from relatives, said state Attorney-General Jim McGinty had promised the community they would be looked after by the coroner's office.

But he said no coroner's court officer or Aboriginal Legal Service lawyers had been to the town to interview witnesses.

He feared legal service lawyers would turn up only on the day to offer advice to the families, with a lack of resources preventing adequate preparation.

Mr McGinty was on annual leave and unavailable for comment. However, when concerns about legal fees were raised on Friday, he said: "Counsel assisting the coroner provides support for families of the deceased. We do not support funding an additional lawyer to also appear on their behalf."

Mr Ross's lack of faith in the process had caused him to call on all families in Fitzroy Crossing to boycott the inquest. "What we are looking for is closure for our families, but we are also looking for justice," he said.

"We want to know what has failed our young children. Communities like ours are absolutely invisible to the state Government. To me it is just going to be a shameful whitewash."

Mr Hammond said the West Australian Government had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for people who suffered in the recent finance brokers' scandal and for ministers called before the royal commission into WA Inc, but not for deaths in the Kimberley.

The inquest is scheduled to hear evidence in Fitzroy Crossing from October 12-16.