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Eastman judge steps aside over client link

Acting Justice Kevin Duggan.

Acting Justice Kevin Duggan. Photo: Supplied

The ACT government is expected within days to appoint a new head to lead the inquiry  into David Harold Eastman’s 1995 murder conviction.

The replacement will take over from previous head, acting Justice Kevin Duggan, after he disqualified himself from the inquiry at a special hearing on Monday.

Eastman has always maintained his innocence in relation to the 1989 murder  of Australian Federal Police assistant commissioner Colin Winchester.

The present inquiry was ordered in August last year after fresh evidence cast doubt on Eastman’s guilt. The inquiry’s task is to investigate the 1995 conviction on 19 grounds, including fitness to plead, forensic evidence, and the possible role of Italian organised crime in the murder.

Justice Duggan told the court he had recently viewed documents, subpoenaed by the inquiry, relating to inquiries into the alleged involvement of an Italian crime group.

The judge said the documents contained a reference to a person he had previously acted for as counsel on three occasions.

‘‘I had no inkling before that discovery that there was a reference to [my former client] in the document ... or that he would have any connection with this inquiry,’’ Justice Duggan said.

‘‘In my view this fact, coupled with the context in which the man’s name is mentioned and the fact that evidence will be led as to the activities of various people mentioned in the police material, lead to the conclusion that it would be inappropriate for me to preside over the inquiry. Accordingly, I disqualify myself from further involvement in the inquiry.’’

The announcement is the latest setback for the inquiry, which has endured months of wrangling over legal representation and a failed attempt by Eastman to have Justice Duggan sacked over concerns of perceived bias.

In May, Eastman had argued unsuccessfully that the appointment of a lawyer acting as junior counsel assisting had created perceived bias and compromised the impartiality of the inquiry.

 But Justice Duggan said his withdrawal would not affect the scheduled inquiry start date in November.

ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell said Justice Duggan had notified the government of his decision late last week and that the search for a replacement had already begun.

Mr Corbell expected to announce a new appointment to head the inquiry within days, once the selection was endorsed by cabinet.

‘‘We do have the process in train and I anticipate making an announcement shortly,’’ the Attorney-General said.

Mr Corbell would not be drawn on who the likely replacement might be, but Fairfax Media believes it will be an interstate appointment.

 The Attorney-General said Justice Duggan had acted professionally and appropriately. ‘‘Issues around perceptions of bias or potential conflicts of interest need to be addressed transparently and that is what [Justice Duggan] has done. I thank him for his work as the inquiry head on behalf of the government.’’

Justice Duggan said the self-disqualification would take effect upon the appointment of the new judge, but he would take no further part in the inquiry. ‘‘It is appropriate to point out that thus far my role has been restricted to a case management function.’’

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