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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Confidential" legal settlements involving alleged government wrongdoing.

Insisting on the "confidentiality" of settlement terms of legal proceedings is no doubt Standard Operating Procedure for lawyers acting for a defendant, on the basis that it involves no admission of liability or of wrongdoing that can be admitted in evidence in any future court proceedings, and the amount involved doesn't sit as a public benchmark for anyone else inclined to take similar action. But can anyone (lawyers excluded) enlighten me on why this should be the accepted norm in cases where government wrongdoing is allegedly involved, in particular why it should extend to the amount of public money that might form part of the settlement?

I somehow doubt if it's in your interests or mine.

As for example, the case of Dr Haneef, below, where action against the Federal Government and former Minister Andrews was settled on agreed confidential terms without apology. And that of Mahmdoud Habib, right, where  a suit alleging government involvement in some way with treatment while he was held by US authorities was settled for an undisclosed amount without admissions. Former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer thought this "an appalling waste of public money" but he would say that wouldn't he?

Mr Habib said the government made him sign a confidentiality clause. "I can't discuss the price with anybody," he said, according to The Australian.

Confidential settlements of this kind fail Accountabilty and the Public Right to Know 101.The fact that such provisions form part of the agreement in each case mean a Freedom of Information application for the terms of settlement would almost certainly fail.

The Prime Minister's call to "let the sun shine in" sounded good to me. 

Then again actions speak louder than words.

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