PM Transcripts

Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 11841

HIH Royal Commission

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 16/05/2001

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 11841

I announce today that I will be recommending to the Governor-General that Western Australian Supreme Court Justice Neville Owen be appointed to head the Royal Commission into the failure of HIH.

Justice Owen, 53, has conducted trials in all areas of the Supreme Court's civil and criminal jurisdictions since he was appointed to the bench on 1 February 1991. He has a special interest in commercial litigation, corporate insolvency and defamation, and has conducted many complex commercial matters. His curriculum vitae is attached.

The proposed terms of reference are attached and will also be submitted to the Governor-General shortly. Justice Owen was consulted on the terms of reference.

The terms of reference are wide ranging and will enable the Royal Commission to fully investigate the circumstances surrounding HIH's failure, the actions of Commonwealth and State regulatory bodies and whether changes should be made to the current legal framework.

I will be recommending to the Governor-General that the Royal Commission be asked to complete its report by 30 June 2002. Arrangements are currently being made to enable the Royal Commission to commence its inquiry.

I have written to Premiers and Chief Ministers seeking their cooperation to ensure that the Royal Commission has full powers to investigate the actions of State, as well as Commonwealth, regulatory bodies.

The Government has conducted an extensive search for a suitable Royal Commissioner and has considered a number of highly qualified candidates.

I am pleased that Justice Owen has agreed to undertake this important task and am confident that his experience and qualifications enable him to carry out a thorough and rigorous inquiry.

I thank the WA Government and the WA Supreme Court for agreeing to release Justice Owen for the Royal Commission. The Commonwealth Government will assist Western Australia in finding and funding an interim replacement judge for the WA Supreme Court.

The Government is determined to do everything it can to ensure that the Commission is conducted in a timely, comprehensive and effective manner.

Over the next 2 months Justice Owen will finalise his current WA Supreme Court matters, before commencing working full time on the Royal Commission from 1 September 2001.

I understand that Justice Owen will be holding discussions with ASIC at the earliest opportunity to achieve maximum cooperation and coordination between the Royal Commission and ASIC's investigation into HIH.

18 June 2001


The Commissioner will inquire into the reasons for, and the circumstances surrounding, the failure of HIH prior to the appointment of the provisional liquidators on 15 March 2001.
In particular, he will inquire into:
(a) whether, and if so the extent to which, decisions or actions of HIH or any of its directors, officers, employees, auditors, actuaries, advisers or agents:
(i) contributed to the failure of HIH; or
(ii) involved undesirable corporate governance practices, including any failure to make desirable disclosures regarding the financial position of HIH;
(b) whether those decisions or actions might have constituted a breach of any law of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory and, if so, whether the question of criminal or other legal proceedings should be referred to the relevant Commonwealth, State or Territory agency;
(c) the appropriateness of the manner in which powers were exercised and responsibilities and obligations were discharged under Commonwealth legislation;
(d) the appropriateness of the manner in which powers were exercised and responsibilities and obligations were discharged under State or Territory legislation; and
(e) the adequacy and appropriateness of arrangements for the regulation and prudential supervision of general insurance at Commonwealth, State and Territory levels, taking into account his findings in relation to the matters referred to in the preceding paragraphs and other relevant matters, including:
(i) Commonwealth arrangements before and after the Financial System Inquiry reforms; and
(ii) different State and Territory statutory insurance and tax regimes.
'HIH Insurance Group' includes HIH Insurance Ltd and other associated companies to which provisional liquidators were appointed on 15 March 2001;
a reference to a director, officer, employee, auditor, actuary, adviser or agent includes a reference to a former director, officer, employee, auditor, actuary, adviser or agent;
a reference to a decision or action includes a failure to make a decision or take an action;
a reference to the exercise of a power includes a failure to exercise a power;
a reference to the discharge of a responsibility or obligation includes a failure to discharge a responsibility or obligation.
Noting that the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) is also investigating certain matters surrounding the failure of HIH, the Commissioner will, to the extent practicable, co-operate with ASIC and conduct his inquiry with a view to avoiding:
(a) any duplication of ASIC's investigation; and
(b) any adverse impact on any civil or criminal proceeding arising out of ASIC's investigation.



Justice Neville Owen, 53, is a distinguished judge of the Supreme Court of Western Australia. He has been on the bench since 1 February 1991 and has conducted trials at first instance in all areas of the Court's civil and criminal jurisdictions.
Justice Owen has a special interest in commercial litigation, corporate insolvency and defamation. He has conducted many complex commercial matters.

The WA Supreme Court also acts as the Court of Appeal for the State. Judges are rostered to sit at appellate level from time to time. In this role Justice Owen has acted as a member of the appeal court in both civil and criminal matters.

Justice Owen has a number of administrative responsibilities within the Court. These include:

* Judge in charge of the Civil List, with responsibility for the allocation and listing of cases in the civil jurisdiction.
* Judge in charge of the Corporations List since its inception in October 1999. This involves managing litigation arising under the Corporations Law and the ASIC Law.
* Convenor of the Supreme Court Rules Committee, which oversees the rules of procedure for civil matters and recommends changes where necessary.
* Nominee of the Chief Justice on national committees that are looking at ways of harmonising procedural rules and practices of litigation under the Corporations Law and in civil practice generally. The Council of Chief Justices sets up these Committees.

Justice Owen was educated at St Ildephonsus College, New Norcia, a country boarding school conducted by the Marist Brothers. He studied law at the University of Western Australia, graduating in 1968 with an LLB (Hons) degree.

Justice Owen undertook two years articles at the firm of E.M. Heenan & Co before serving in the Army for 18 months National Service during the Vietnam War. In the Army he was posted to the Legal Corps. He attained the rank of Captain. He remained on the panel of Army legal advisers until 1988.

Between 1972 and 1975 he was a partner in the firm E.M. Heenan & Co. From 1975 until 1984 he practised in a small firm known as Bryant & Owen. In 1984 that firm merged with Robinson Cox (now Clayton Utz) and until 31 January 1991 he was a partner of Robinson Cox.

Justice Owen had a broadly based practice covering most legal areas, except family law. His style of practice was as a barrister and solicitor, that is, as an advocate and as a solicitor in litigious and non-litigious work. He was most closely involved with matters relating to corporate structures, insolvency, trusts and equity and media law.

He has been a visiting lecturer and tutor at the Law School at the University of Western Australia and the University of Notre Dame on a variety of subjects. He is a member of the Faculty of Law at UWA and the Advisory Panel for the School of Law at Murdoch University. He is the Deputy Chair of the University of Notre Dame Advisory Board and a member of the Board of Governors of the University.

Justice Owen was a member of the predecessor to the Legal Practice Board (the body which regulates the legal profession) between 1981 and 1991. He was a consultant to the Australian Law Reform Commission's reference on insolvency law in the period 1984-87.

Justice Owen has also served on a number of school boards. He is presently Chairman of the boards for Iona Presentation College and Newman College. He is also on the board of Daughters of Charity Services Pty Ltd, a company associated with a religious order involved in mental health and other welfare ministries.

Justice Owen was born at Midland, WA, on 23 July 1947. He is married with five children.

18 June 2001

Transcript 11841