State sorry for failure to provide evidence, delaying truth-telling inquiry

Lawyers for the Victorian government have apologised to the state’s truth-telling inquiry for failing to comply with the Yoorrook Justice Commission’s orders to produce crucial evidence relating to the criminal and child protection systems and their impact on Indigenous people.

Georgia Coghlan, acting for the state government, acknowledged her client had not met deadlines set by the commission – the last on March 14 – but said the sheer amount of work in a short period of time had made it “practically impossible to achieve”.

Yoorrook Justice Commission chair Eleanor Bourke.Credit:Joe Armao

“It’s not a lack of respect or commitment,” she told a directions hearing on Monday. “It is simply a sign of trying to produce but not being able to.

“The state is committed to being responsive and to being co-operative.”

The government’s failure to produce the evidence on time meant senior bureaucrats who were scheduled to front the commission this week will have to wait to give evidence. Yoorrook is an inquiry into injustices experienced by Aboriginal people in Victoria’s criminal and child protection systems.

The delay could also affect the commission’s ability to provide its interim and final reports.

Coghlan asked for and was granted extensions of time for all the outstanding evidence, and conceded the delays would affect the commission’s deadlines for its reports. The government is expected to grant the commission an extension to produce its reports.

Coghlan told the hearing the government documents requested by the commission would run into the thousands.

“At this point we would estimate between two and 3000 documents, amounting to around 30,000 pages of material,” she said.

Sarala Fitzgerald, the counsel assisting the commission, said the government had still not answered 178 questions asked of it on February 12. A document provided by the Department of Justice also did not answer 71 questions, she said.

Fitzgerald said the delays caused by the government jeopardised future commission hearings.

However, she asked the commissioners to extend the deadline for the government to produce evidence to April 6 – less than a fortnight away – and to hold another directions hearing next Monday.

“It may be appropriate just to provide a smaller extension at this stage and keep … the departments working as hard as possible in the meantime,” she said.

It is unclear when the bureaucrats who were scheduled to give evidence this week will now be questioned. Another block of public hearings are scheduled after Easter.

Yoorrook is the first formal truth-telling inquiry into past and ongoing injustices against First Nations people in Victoria, as part of the state’s path to treaty.

Established with royal commission powers, Yoorrook can compel people to produce documents and to attend hearings and give evidence. It is a criminal offence to fail to comply with a notice to produce documents without a reasonable excuse.

With AAP

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