The judge presiding over the Papua New Guinean inquiry into the treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island has refused calls to step down on the grounds of bias, on the eve of the inquiry visiting the controversial centre.
Justice David Cannings on Monday also ruled it would be up to asylum seekers if they wanted their names suppressed when they gave evidence before the court.
Lawyers acting for the PNG government on Monday asked Justice Cannings to step down from the inquiry he launched, on the grounds that proceedings were moving unusually fast and that he previously oversaw another challenge to the centre.
Justice Cannings disclosed at the start of the hearings that the Cairns-based public health specialist chosen to investigate the centre, Dr Paul Crouch-Chivers, was a personal friend.
On Monday afternoon the judge ruled that a reasonable or fair-minded person would not find that he was biased.
“I don’t consider that knowledge of that relationship … would be a concern for a reasonable or fair-minds observer to think that I would approach the doctor’s evidence or his role in these proceedings in anything other than an impartial or independent way,” he said.
“I am of the view … that Dr Crouch-Chivers is eminently well qualified and experienced in the area of public health, and that his (37 years of) experience as a medical professional in PNG … makes him ideally suitable,” he said.
Peter Kuman, acting on behalf of the state, argued there was an apprehension of bias based on Justice Cannings’ friendship with Dr Crouch-Chivers, as well as his presiding over opposition leader Belden Namah’s challenge to the legality of the centre in 2013.
Mr Kuman also argued that because Justice Cannings commenced these latest proceedings, he could not preside over them.
But Justice Cannings dismissed all three points of Mr Kuman’s application.
Another application to suppress the names of asylum seekers was also dismissed.
Justice Cannings also said he thought a layperson would be impressed at the speed of the proceedings, expected to conclude by the end of March.
Read to the inquiry were sections of a letter by Australian High Commissioner Deborah Stokes highlighting potential dangers to asylum seekers in their country of origin if their identities were made public.
But Justice Cannings declined the PNG government’s application.
“To impose a blanket suppression order on transferees who come to give evidence may have the side-effect of discouraging them from giving evidence,” he said.
“Everyone in PNG has the right to privacy.
“Perhaps the corollary of that is everyone in PNG has the right to disclosure.”
PNG public solicitor Frazer Pitpit told the court he had 32 affidavits from transferees, in 13 languages.
In a late submission on Monday, Sydney lawyer Jay Williams notified the court 75 asylum seekers wished to join the proceedings as interested parties.
Justice Cannings ordered his judge’s associate to write a letter to immigration officials to allow Mr Williams into the country so he could appear in court on Manus Island on Wednesday.
Under PNG law, judges can mount their own human rights hearings.
Justice Cannings launched the inquiry last month following a riot in which 23-year-old asylum seeker Reza Berati died.
Dr Crouch-Chivers is expected to visit the centre on Wednesday, and give evidence at a later date.