AUSTRALIA'S leading bushfire lawyer has labelled widespread public criticism of St Patrick’s Day fires class actions as “scandalous”.
Warrnambool's Maddens Lawyers partner Brendan Pendergast has launched class actions in relation to the Terang, Garvoc, Gazette and Gnotuk fires which devastated the region earlier this year.
The defendant to each of the actions is Powercor Australia Ltd.
Maddens, considered the leading bushfire class action firm in the nation, has signed up about 135 victims of the Terang fire and 55 for the Garvoc blaze and is also running a number of New South Wales bushfire class actions.
"Frankly, I think the people of south-west Victoria impacted by the Garvoc and Terang fires are being fed so much misinformation and in my view it's scandalous," he said.
"It's a massive problem.
“We have a long established system of civil justice. People have the right to recover civil wrongs properly pursued in courts."
Mr Pendergast said fire victims under extreme stress were being ill-informed by politicians and civic leaders.
"They are being urged to directly approach the wrongdoer to seek proper compensation for millions of dollars in damages, while leaving the court out and not seeking proper legal advice," he said.
"It's a bit like a motor vehicle accident where a driver ploughs through a red light, your car is written off and then trying to sort out damages with the driver responsible who denies liability and says 'trust me'."
Mr Pendergast said dealing with Powercor directly would involve the company's self-appointed loss assessor whose speciality was assessing losses at their minimum, without a right of appeal.
It's understood that for the Terang fire, up to 50 per cent of those losses would then be paid by the company.
“That's outrageous, but that is what fire victims are being urged to do," Mr Pendergast said.
"The criticism of lawyers has gained momentum, there's been criticism of class actions and people have hysterically referred to costs."
The lawyer said class actions, including legal costs, were closely supervised by courts, managed by a judge and victims had their rights reserved.
He said the defendant would pay the vast majority of legal costs and that there was no prospect of any fire victim being out of pocket for legal costs arising out of these cases.
"We do not get any percentage of payouts, categorically none," he said.
He said Maddens was advancing the litigation on a “no-win, no-fee” basis, which was highly advantageous to clients.
Mr Pendergast conceded a “no-win, no-fee” costs agreement was a complex document and there was a potential for people to misunderstand sections.
"Costs don't relate to the sum recovered, they relate to a scale of costs approved by the Supreme Court," he said
The lawyer said discretionary, loadings and uplifted costs were not accumulative and were part of any complex litigation.
Mr Pendergast said Maddens did not appoint litigation funders where typically 30 to 40 per cent of sums recovered went to those investors.
Mr Pendergast said Maddens issued 400 writs after the Ash Wednesday fires in February, 1983, recovering $40 million.
"We are currently running several class actions in NSW.
"We are expert and highly experienced in this field and without doubt Australia's most experienced bushfire litigation firm.
"We know what we are doing, we're effective, efficient and very good at it."
Mr Pendergast said delays in Black Saturday cases related to the assessment of loss and damage, with the defendant demanding victims provide the smallest details of all losses.
He said providing such proof by victims who had lost everything was onerous in the extreme and unrealistic and would not happen in the St Patrick's Day fire cases.
Mr Pendergast said victims could also claim aid that had been donated, such as fencing and fodder.
"That's all recoverable from the wrongdoer. It was not intended to benefit Powercor," he said. "That can be claimed absolutely. What the client does with that is between the victim and the donor. We have no part of that claim but it would be subject to costs."
Mr Pendergast said his firm had been criticised in state parliament for signing up people the day after the St Patrick's Day fires.
"That is errant nonsense. We were at the scene of the fires gathering evidence, taking photographs and talking to witnesses," he said. "Any competent lawyer had to be on the scene. We specialise in that area of litigation and it happened on our back door step," he said.
Dixie fire victim Daniel Gilmour - who had 400 hectares burnt, including 25km fencing and 800 tonnes of hay - said no one thought Maddens were going to be taking legal action for free.
"But Powercor is not a benevolent organisation and will be doing what if can to minimise its losses," he said.
"Victims of the fires need to ensure they are fully aware of all the facts."
Mr Gilmour suggested victims speak directly to Maddens if they had questions about the class actions as he believed litigation was the avenue to obtain the best level of compensation.