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It's legal musical chairs at Eastman probe

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The Eastman inquiry now risks failing in its pursuit of a fresh independent assessment.

The Eastman inquiry now risks failing in its pursuit of a fresh independent assessment. Photo: Andrew Taylor

The Eastman inquiry is starting to assume the dimensions of a class reunion, if with strange changes of roles for some of the players and serious risk to hopes or perceptions that it will involve a fresh independent review of Eastman's 1995 murder conviction.

Two lawyers in the case had different clients at earlier Eastman inquiries. A lawyer for Eastman - arguing this time that there are doubts about his guilt - was counsel assisting Justice Jeffrey Miles in an earlier inquiry when he argued that Eastman was fit to plead. This is still in contest.

Another lawyer worked on the staff of Justice Miles' inquiry but is now junior counsel assisting. Neither thinks themself conflicted, or fears there will be perceptions of conflict of interest.

But counsel assisting, Liesl Chapman, SC, has joined counsel for the Director of Public Prosecutions to argue that Terry O'Donnell, another lawyer appearing for Eastman, should be made to stand aside, because he is a potential witness in the case. They say it would be embarrassing to have to cross-examine him.

The former research assistant to the judge, now working as junior counsel to Chapman, says he was never privy to the private contemplations of anyone who had a role in the inquiry: ''My duties comprised collating the tendered depositions, assisting in legal research, ensuring accuracy to detail and liaising between service providers,'' he said. He is, apparently, doing much the same, albeit probably at far higher rates, for Chapman.

The number of those around the bar table will expand at directions hearings on Thursday to also allow representation for the Australian Federal Police.

The terms of reference of the inquiry involve criticism of both individual police officers as well as the AFP generally, and of prosecutors. It is possible, down the track, that interests of institutions differ from individuals, and that more representation will be needed - all, it seems, to contradict whatever Eastman puts up.

It appears that the inquiry will operate more or less as an appeal, albeit with multiple contradictors. Justice Kevin Duggan, conducting the inquiry, has explicitly said that Chapman has no role as general investigator, and that his own role is restricted to receiving evidence presented to him. The enabling legislation permits this, but would also allow a more active inquiry.

It is thought that legal actions, including inquests, a trial, appeals, inquiries and numerous litigation, much of it at Eastman's instance, has cost the ACT government at least $12 million so far. The cost of representation for Eastman is thought to be less than $500,000. As things stand, the imbalance of further spending, and a lawyers' picnic, seems guaranteed with this inquiry.

Chapman does not return calls, and phones identified as being headquarters for the inquiry routinely ring out. Questions put to her about the inquiry were finally answered on Wednesday by a spokesman for the ACT Justice Department, despite the potential risk of conflict of interest this could involve. ''Arrangements have been made for an advertisement to appear in The Canberra Times and The Australian on Friday inviting public participation,'' the Justice Department said, intriguingly. It is not at all clear how any material this elicits will be incorporated into the scheme of things.

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