John Bottoms has been fighting for indigenous justice for decades.
Over the years the lawyer from Cairns has worked on everything from the Ayres Rock Land Claim to the landmark Wik case – a significant judgment in the area of native title – and most recently the Stolen Wages class action.
It’s the fifth largest class action Australia has ever seen and delivered a settlement from the Queensland Government to the tune of $190 million. Litigation funding was crucial to its success.
Here John talks how the Stolen Wages class action finally delivered justice to thousands of Aboriginal people.
I actually knew the lead application Hans Pearson through a previous case.
Hans came to me and asked if he thought I could help him and his late wife, Anna May Pearson, recover the wages that had been stolen by the Queensland Government over many decades.
Hans was one of many thousands of people who literally worked for no wages as they were paid to the government. They received only rations and very poor accommodation and felt like slaves. They Government built 13 hospitals in South East Queensland using their wages.
This was a 50 year old sore that needed fixing but the Queensland Government seemingly found it too difficult. They only wanted to offer up $46 million for a repatriation scheme which was insultingly low.
We started proceedings in September 2016 arguing that the Government had breached its duty as trustee and fiduciary of a trust. We went through three mediations – but it got nowhere. It was only the trial date that focused their minds and we were able to settle for $190 million in 2019.
At the beginning we had just a few hundred claimants but by the end we were representing 13,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We’re a small firm so managing that amount of people was difficult at times.
There was as you’d imagine also a huge amount of documentation to go through from archives. We also had to travel all over Queensland – as far north as Saibai Island near Papua New Guinea and to Cape York and Mount Isa to meet face to face with our members and gather evidence and their stories. A lot of people did not have paperwork, and many people were very old.
This case cost $13.4 million to run and there is no way we could have done this without litigation funding. The funder, Litigation Lending, actually offered us a lower commission rate because it was a social justice case.
The litigation funders really are the only way the ordinary Joe in the street can take on big government, big pharma and the big corporates.
In this case it was the public service that was letting people down – in fact it was letting people die so they did not have to pay anything back.
The sheer bloody mindedness of these entities never ceases to amaze me.
At the end of the day we managed to secure $190 million which makes me deeply satisfied. Money that will now reach the claimants this December. It’s probably not what is fully owed to them but for a little country law firm we hadn’t done too badly.
I’m not done yet. There are still so many injustices to fix in the Aboriginal community.