'Headless chook' Brandis accused of pressuring inquiry

The man in charge of the Productivity Commission's inquiry into access to justice has criticised Attorney-General George Brandis for attempting to influence the outcome of the review.

Former Productivity Commission commissioner Warren Mundy, who conducted the review between 2013 and 2014 into the legal system including class actions, described the behaviour of the Attorney-General's office before and after the commission issued a draft report of the inquiry as inappropriate. Senator Brandis has denied Dr Mundy's allegations.

The access to justice inquiry by the commission looked at a range of legal issues, including legal aid funding, access to legal services and class action funding.

During the inquiry and after the draft report was released Mr Brandis appeared in a series of media articles threatening a crackdown on litigation funding despite the review not being finalised.

"At one point during our inquiry Brandis was running around like a headless chook," Dr Mundy told Fairfax Media.

"There was some fairly inappropriate conduct. We were coming under some pressure to validate the Attorney-General's prejudices. And I call them prejudices because they had no basis in fact other than his stellar career at the Brisbane bar."

Senator Brandis, who was called to the Queensland bar in 1985, was named a Queen's Counsel in 2006. His appointment as a QC sparked controversy in some quarters of the Queensland legal community due to the fact that he had not practised law since joining Parliament in 2000.

"At the time we released the draft report, he [Brandis] started getting all carried away about 'we've got to stop litigation funding'. And the commission said [in its report] we should probably have more of it but we should do it differently," Dr Mundy said.

"That inquiry, which the Law Council has described as the most significant inquiry into civil justice in Australia's history, was received by the government and for the only time that I am aware of the responsible minister did not seek a briefing from the commission.

"And it took them a year to publish a response and only then was a very scrappy response provided on request from the state attorneys-general."

Claims absurd

A spokesman for Senator Brandis said: "The comments from former Labor staffer Warren Mundy are absurd and wrong."

"The Attorney-General has never said litigation funding needs to be stopped. In fact he has said that litigation funding can contribute to an efficient and effective justice system," the spokesman said.

"The Attorney-General has expressed concerns over potential conflicts of interest and moral and ethical hazards exposing businesses and consumers to unnecessary risk," the spokesman said.

"In expressing concern about ethical hazards of litigation funding, Senator Brandis joins a long list of judges, including NSW Chief Justice Tom Bathurst, and former High Court justices Dyson Heydon and Ian Callinan."

Dr Mundy also criticised the Australian Institute of Company Directors' submissions to the inquiry and subsequent campaign that warned of an outbreak of class actions if litigation funding was allowed.

"There was no evidence that there was an unexpectedly large number of these things happening in Australia. The facts didn't bear them out," said Dr Mundy, who is a fellow of the institute.

"We couldn't get the institute to talk to us. We were close to subpoenaing the institute."

An institute spokesman said it remained concerned with the unregulated environment for litigation funding in Australia.

"Third-party funders and entrepreneurial law firms continue to drive class actions, with private equity funds also partnering with funders to pursue growth."

"We regret that Mr Mundy feels we did not meet his expectations on engagement, and remain committed to working with stakeholders on this important issue. The AICD also values our constructive engagement with the Productivity Commission and its important work across a range of review areas."

This story 'Headless chook' Brandis accused of pressuring inquiry first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.