“Queensland Governor and former chief justice Paul de Jersey has come under fire for perceived conflict of interest over his role in a legal review 20 years ago that recommended maintaining legal limitations for child sex abuse claims.
Legal experts and abuse victims said a year before he became Queensland’s most senior judge, Justice de Jersey had a conflict of interest when he chaired crucial formative stages of the Queensland Law Reform Commission (QLRC) review that led the State Government to wait another 18 years before abolishing time limits on lawsuits.
A former Supreme Court colleague is among the judge’s critics, whose views support concerns raised privately by victims with the recently concluded Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.
The review on time limits for civil lawsuits, including child sex abuse claims, was handed down in September 1998.
At the time it was carried out, Justice de Jersey — then a Supreme Court judge — was chancellor (honorary legal adviser) to the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane, which was then facing a growing number of sex abuse complaints.
An expert on judicial ethics, Justice James Thomas told the ABC Justice de Jersey should never have held the role of church legal adviser while he was also a judge.
The QLRC review urged the State Government to keep time limits on child sex abuse lawsuits, but recommended judges have discretion to extend them.
This limit gave most victims three years after turning 18 to file claims, which in effect limited any institution’s potential legal exposure.
There is no suggestion that Justice de Jersey improperly influenced the outcome of the QLRC review.
But its findings were later swept aside, as recommended by the landmark royal commission into child abuse.
The royal commission found the limits “worked great injustices” against victims and the Queensland Government abolished them in 2016.
A leading public law expert questioned Justice de Jersey’s decision not to stand aside from the QLRC review in the face of “a pretty obvious and serious conflict of interest”.
La Trobe University professor Matthew Groves said Justice de Jersey “would have known, having been a judge and a senior lawyer, that this had the potential to impact on the liability of the church of which he was part”.
“And I think it would probably have been prudent for [Justice de Jersey] to step out of this one,” Professor Groves told the ABC.
“The important thing is firstly, it’s the public perception.
“I think most people would think there’s a clear potential for a conflict of interest and that’s enough for a person to stand aside from an important public position — and doubly so when it’s a judge.”
Professor Groves said it was important to know that a lot was known 20 years ago about the legal exposure of institutions, including churches, to child sex abuse.
“So we’re not imposing what we know now on what happened 20 years ago … the key elements of this conflict were there and they should have been managed,” he said.
Lyndal [surname withheld], who fought the Brisbane diocese in a landmark 2001 case over her abuse as a 12-year-old schoolgirl, said Justice de Jersey “should have stepped down” from the review.
She was the only known abuse victim to sue the diocese in time before the reforms.
Lyndal’s court-awarded damages of about $835,000 contrast with the average $74,000 the diocese paid to 145 victims between 1980 and 2015.
Her case in part led to the downfall of former governor-general Peter Hollingworth, who was the Anglican archbishop of Brisbane in 1997.
Justice De Jersey said in 2001 the church had not sought his advice about Lyndal’s case.
But Lyndal said she “would have been pretty pissed off” to know it was the archbishop’s honorary legal adviser involved in reviewing a key legal barrier for victims.
“How can you have this person in so many roles, who is advising Hollingworth at the time … just doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem ethical,” Lyndal said.
Another abuse survivor, a Brisbane man who settled out of court with the diocese after being out of time and did not wish to be named, accused Justice de Jersey of “absolute hypocrisy”.
“This man was in a legal position to highly influence that law which directly favours the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane, where he had held the very senior position of chancellor since 1991,” the man said.
“One of the most important qualities of such a senior person in both these camps should have been to immediately recognise the unethical position he was in and dissociate himself immediately from any involvement.”
‘He should not have been church advisor while also a judge’
Retired Supreme Court Justice James Thomas said the review’s recommendation would not have been unusual at that time.
“In fairness to the judge, I don’t think that back in 1998 any judge on the bench would have made any different recommendation on the statute of limitations issue,” he said.
But Justice Thomas, an authority on judicial ethics, also said Justice de Jersey should never have held the role of church legal adviser while he was also a judge.
“Judges should not be members of any organisation that is likely to be involved in public controversy,” he said.
“For that reason I have thought it unwise for any judge to hold a position on the governing body of any church, and that of course includes the Synod of the Anglican Church.”
Governor de Jersey declined an interview request by the ABC and offered no comment to questions.
The QLRC has been unable to confirm whether a code of conduct around conflicts of interest was in place in 1997.”