Justices Forrest and Dixon of the Supreme Court of Victoria have today made rulings approving administration costs in the Black Saturday Bushfire class actions, clearing the way for Maurice Blackburn to distribute nearly $700m in compensation, including to personal injury claimants by the end of 2016, and to persons who suffered economic loss and property damage in early 2017.
Maurice Blackburn Principal Brooke Dellavedova said "It’s been a long, hard fight in Court followed by a long, hard administration process to get to this point. The length and complexity of the process has been trying for survivors already traumatised by the Black Saturday bushfires.”
“We’re pleased the process is drawing to a close and heartened by the Court’s endorsement of the settlement administration. The money won’t change what has happened, but we’re looking forward to distributing much needed compensation to those affected".
Justice Forrest has described the process as “an unprecedented settlement administration in tort class action”.
During a hearing last week, his Honour commended those involved, stating:
“I think we can say on behalf of the Court we are satisfied that the appropriate steps have been taken in both cases to endeavour to distribute the money and the funds to people who need it, as quickly and as efficient as possible. We congratulate the administrator and his team on that.”
In respect of the ruling delivered today, his Honour Justice Forrest commented:
“This demonstrates that the class action process works... it shows that when it is properly managed, many substantially disadvantaged and affected people can recover compensation that they would otherwise not have been able to obtain.”
At the hearing last week, the Court and group members had their first opportunity to hear from the independent cost assessor appointed by the Court to review costs incurred in administering the settlement scheme. John White also endorsed the appropriateness, efficiency and accuracy of the complex distribution process, giving evidence that:
“My view, having examined a great deal of material, is that the Scheme was thoughtfully considered in the first place, implemented properly and accurately and efficiently; that as problems arose, they were expeditiously dealt with and there are not problems that I can see generally that would have been foreseen.”
Ultimately, the Court endorsed all proposals put by Maurice Blackburn as scheme administrator to ensure money could be distributed as soon as possible, including distributing before the conclusion of discussions with the ATO regarding the tax treatment of interest earned on the settlement sums. In supporting such an approach, Justice Forrest commented:
“I am satisfied, on the material provided, that the Scheme Administrator has acted appropriately in relation to these taxation issues. …. [T]he Scheme Administrator has determined to pursue a prudent course and withhold the full amount of the potential taxation liability . . . until the issue is resolved.”