21 Mar 2015

Australian judge's colourful past

8:42 am on 21 March 2015

The senior retired Australian judge heading a fresh inquiry into David Bain's compensation claim has been a controversial figure across the Tasman.

The honourable Ian Callinan, QC, a Companion of the Order of Australia, starts work on Monday to establish whether Mr Bain has proven his innocence beyond reasonable doubt, and will report back to the Justice Minister Amy Adams within six months.

Previously a high-profile criminal lawyer, Mr Callinan's appointment to the High Court in 1998 excited political debate after the frank admission by the then deputy prime minister Tim Fischer that the Howard Government wanted to see a "Capital C Conservative" appointed to the court.

At the time he was notorious for his involvement in the longest-running and most expensive commercial proceeding in Queensland's legal history, White Industries v Flower & Hart.

Mr Callinan was not a party in the case, which involved unfounded allegations of fraud against a building firm by a Brisbane shopping mall developer, who did not want to pay his bill.

However, the judge who ruled in favour of the building firm said Mr Callinan had agreed and approved of the use of a fraud claim to frustrate and delay White's recovery of the money it was owed.

Questions over his legal advice to the developer led the Law Council to call for a parliamentary inquiry into his professional ethics.

This was rejected by the Government, but the scandal was the subject of a television documentary by the ABC Four Corners programme.

Since his retirement from the bench in 2007, Mr Callinan has been involved in several government inquiries, including a review of the Crime and Misconduct Commission and critical report on the parole system in Victoria, as well as mediating in many disputes from financial collapses to sexual abuse claims involving the Catholic church.

He also writes racy novels, which draw inspiration from his varied legal career spanning more than 50 years, which included appearances for corporate and sporting personalities like Alan Bond, Greg Chappell and Andrew Ettingshausen, and the prosecution of a High Court justice Lionel Murphy and extradition proceedings against notorious fugitive Christopher Skase.

The Justice Minister, Amy Adams, said Mr Callinan was selected to head the Bain inquiry from a shortlist of retired judges with extensive criminal experience from both New Zealand and overseas jurisdictions.

"I consider Mr Callinan to have the right breadth and depth of experience.

"There is also merit in having an inquirer from outside New Zealand to remove any perception of influence of public opinion. Mr Callinan will bring a fresh perspective and dispassionate view to the inquiry."

Mr Callinan is expected to report back within six months on the compensation clain by Mr Bain, who spent 13 years in prison for killing five family members before being found not guilty of murder in a retrial in 2009.

He is the second international judge to assess Mr Bain's claim for compensation for wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

In a report released in late 2012, former Canadian Supreme Court judge Ian Binnie concluded that Mr Bain was innocent and suggested he should receive compensation.

However, the then Justice Minister Judith Collins sought a peer review of that report, carried out by Robert Fisher QC, which criticised the findings as legally flawed.