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Bushfire compensation appeal starts

Canberra Times logo Canberra Times 26/05/2014 Michael Inman
Brindabella landowner Wayne West outside the ACT Supreme Court after the 2012 judgment regarding the ACT's 2003 bushfires. © Jeffrey Chan Brindabella landowner Wayne West outside the ACT Supreme Court after the 2012 judgment regarding the ACT's 2003 bushfires.

The devastation of the 2003 Canberra bushfires will be revisited in a Canberra court over the next nine days as a group of landholders continue their fight for compensation.
The inferno ripped through Canberra’s south-western suburbs on January 18, 2003, killing four people and destroying almost 500 homes.
The group has launched legal action in the ACT Court of Appeal after its bid for compensation was rejected by the ACT Supreme Court in 2012.
The appeal – the first to be heard before an all-female bench of the ACT Court of Appeal – began on Monday.
The group, led by insurance giant QBE and Wayne West, a rural landholder who lost his property in the fire, alleges the NSW government failed to control the bushfire in its early stages, and was negligent in its management of the blaze.
It says NSW should be held liable for the resulting damage.
In December, 2012, an ACT Supreme Court judge found NSW had adopted an "inadequate and defective strategy" to fight the fires.
But former Chief Justice Terence Higgins found NSW was not legally liable to pay compensation.
The judge found faults with the fire authorities' strategy, including the decision not to fight the McIntyre's Hut fire at Baldy Range at first light on January 9, and the failure to backburn along the Goodradigbee River.
But former Justice Higgins found the property owners were not entitled to compensation as to establish negligence under NSW law, the plaintiff had to show the authorities conduct had been unreasonable.
The judge found the case fell short of that benchmark, and the court had seen no evidence to find fire authorities had failed to act in good faith.
The group appealed the decision.
On Monday, in an unexpected move, senior counsel for NSW, John Maconachie, QC, was the first to give submissions to the bench.
It is usual legal practice for the appellants to address the court first.
Mr Maconachie started by outlining a chronology of events, from when the fires were ignited by lightning strikes in NSW on January 8, 2003.
The barrister rejected allegations NSW authorities had been negligent by failing to control the fire in its early stages.
"This was not some backyard grass fire. It was a very, very serious bushfire, in rugged terrain, in the height of summer, in a prolonged drought," the silk said.
"It's all very well [to criticise] after the event.
"Nobody is more regretful than the people who fought it. [But they] didn't foresee this maelstrom would have the impact where it did."
Mr Maconachie argued unsuccessful attempts to fight the blaze at different stages did not make his clients liable for the damage it caused.
"[They] attempted to gain control of an extraordinary, naturally occurring event, occurring in wild terrain after a period of drought.
"Nobody had control, there were attempts to gain control. Every fire line in NSW [was] breached that day."
The case is the first time the Court of Appeal has run as an electronic courtroom, with scores of new monitors and equipment installed in the past weeks.
The matter before Chief Justice Helen Murrell, Justice Jayne Jagot, and Justice Anna Katzmann continues on Tuesday.

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