Bushfire victims will be legally represented at the Bushfires Royal Commission when it holds its next hearings, after being previously refused leave to appear.
When commission hearings resume in late August, Tim Tobin, QC, will represent 1100 people and businesses involved in class actions against power companies. Five major fires, including the deadly Kilmore-Kinglake fire, are believed to have been started by fallen power lines owned by power distributors SP AusNet and Powercor.
The commission confirmed three firms of solicitors acting for victims had been granted leave to appear, a spokesman saying it had “always been a matter to be kept under review”.
The move comes as some bushfire victims expressed anger that Premier John Brumby quickly supported Country Fire Authority chief Russell Rees, despite the commission exposing errors of communication and co-ordination on February 7.
Joan Davey – who lost her son Robert, daughter-in-law Natasha, and granddaughters Jorja, 3, and Alexis, 8 months, in the Kinglake fire – has written to Mr Brumby, saying her family had been badly let down by him and by the senior management of the emergency services.
The letter says the family had “endured the anguish of hearing the many failings” of Victoria’s emergency services leaders, and there is “not support for, or confidence in, Mr Rees among the CFA members for his guidance in the coming fire season”.
Ms Davey told The Sunday Age she found it frightening that the people who “failed dismally” on Black Saturday had kept their jobs.
“Nothing has changed. We’ll go into the next fire season with the same people in charge, and with people still not learning,” she said. “God help us.”
The CFA has reappointed Mr Rees for two years, and Mr Brumby has said he did “an outstanding job”, and the community could not have asked for more.
Ms Davey’s plea has found support among some other fire victims, including Marysville resident Bruce Ackerman, who said he thought a replacement for Mr Rees would have been “a fait accompli”.
“I would have thought after such a disaster it would be automatic,” he said.
CFA chairman Kerry Murphy said that he was “sympathetic to the traumas and loss” of fire victims, but that Mr Rees had led the CFA extremely well, and that “we have full confidence in his capabilities”.
Yesterday, Premier John Brumby offered his condolences to the Davey family and vowed that the Government would do everything in its power to prevent a repeat of the Black Saturday disaster. “Our Government remains committed to taking the appropriate steps to protect Victorians for the upcoming bushfire season, and bushfire seasons in the future,” he said.
“As for Russell Rees, we couldn’t have asked for more from him.”
Mr Tobin, the lawyer for fire victims, said people affected by the fires had a “unique perspective which must be heard”.
Maurice Blackburn partner Bernard Murphy said his clients had suffered tremendous loss and it was “paramount for them to be represented … and to have the ability through their representatives to cross-examine the witnesses presented”.
Maddens Lawyers’ director Brendan Pendergast said he was perplexed by the original decision to exclude victims. At the time, the commission said leave to appear was limited to those whose conduct during the fire could come under scrutiny.
SP AusNet has been represented by its lawyer, Jonathan Beach, from the start of the commission hearings.
An SP AusNet spokeswoman said the class action was “premature and inappropriate, considering the establishment of the royal commission”, adding that “we will vigorously defend any claim”.
But fire victims who have joined the class action are pleased by the commission’s decision. Robyn Norris and her husband Kevin lost their garden ornaments business, which they say was worth upwards of $1 million, in the Beechworth-Mudgegonga fires.
Ms Norris said that, without a lawyer, small business people in regional areas would be ignored. “If we don’t speak up, no one will know we exist,” she said.
Donald Carter, who almost lost his house in the Horsham fire, said lawyers representing victims were in some ways more valuable than the “lay witnesses” the commission has so far relied on to describe conditions on the ground.
Meanwhile, the Police Association’s submission to the royal commission has criticised the Government’s failure to fund a communications upgrade. Without it, city and country police radios do not talk to each other and dispatchers in the country use equipment outmoded in the 1970s, secretary Greg Davies said.
The union also asked why then-chief commissioner Christine Nixon and Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron have not been called before the commission to give an account of their actions on Black Saturday.