Gail Furness, SC, is counsel assisting the Kathleen Folbigg inquiry after five years with the child abuse royal commission

Tragic: Kathleen Folbigg and her babies Patrick, Sarah, Laura and Caleb. An inquiry will investigate the 2003 convictions that Folbigg killed her babies.
Tragic: Kathleen Folbigg and her babies Patrick, Sarah, Laura and Caleb. An inquiry will investigate the 2003 convictions that Folbigg killed her babies.

THE child abuse royal commission lawyer who grilled Cardinal George Pell about his responses to allegations against other priests has been appointed counsel assisting a NSW inquiry into the Kathleen Folbigg baby killing convictions.

Gail Furness, SC, will assist retired NSW District Court chief judge Reg Blanch, QC, in an inquiry announced more than five years after the University of Newcastle Legal Centre raised serious questions about Folbigg’s convictions in 2003 for the murder of three of her babies at Singleton between 1989 and 1999, and the manslaughter of a fourth.

Folbigg was moved to Cessnock jail in 2017 to serve the remainder of her 30-year jail sentence.

A spokesperson for Attorney General Mark Speakman confirmed Ms Furness’ appointment on Monday. 

At a directions hearing in Sydney on October 25 Mr Blanch is expected to consider whether the inquiry should be heard in Newcastle. The matter has already been raised informally with the inquiry.

Petition: Newcastle barristers Isabel Reed and Robert Cavanagh led a petition to the NSW Governor questioning the soundness of the 2003 Folbigg jury convictions.

Petition: Newcastle barristers Isabel Reed and Robert Cavanagh led a petition to the NSW Governor questioning the soundness of the 2003 Folbigg jury convictions.

“We’ve approached the Attorney-General in so far as having it in Newcastle, and that’s yet to be decided,” said Newcastle barrister Isabel Reed, who has led the Folbigg petition for five years.

“It will probably be decided at the directions hearing.”

Folbigg will not be at the directions hearing but will attend the full inquiry, Ms Reed said.  

The directions hearing could also consider possible refining of the terms of reference announced by Mr Speakman on August 22, a date for the inquiry and whether any overseas witnesses will be required to give evidence.

Mr Speakman said the University of Newcastle Legal Centre’s petition for an inquiry, lodged in 2015, raised doubt about evidence at Folbigg’s trial relating to “the incidence of reported deaths of three or more infants in the same family attributed to unidentified natural causes”.

Inquiry: Retired NSW District Court chief judge Reg Blanch will head an inquiry into the Kathleen Folbigg convictions.

Inquiry: Retired NSW District Court chief judge Reg Blanch will head an inquiry into the Kathleen Folbigg convictions.

The petition for a judicial review included the opinion of internationally respected Monash University forensic pathologist Professor Stephen Cordner that there was ‘‘no forensic pathology support for the contention that any or all of these children have been killed’’.

He found much of the forensic pathology discussed at the trial was “misconceived” and the default diagnosis of murder was “wrong”.

Leading British statistician and professor of mathetics Ray Hill challenged the judge’s summing up for the jury in 2003 that there was “no authenticated record of three or more such deaths in a single family” after evidence to that effect.

The evidence was not only wrong but would have left the jury discounting SIDS and “leaving multiple homicides as the only explanation, Professor Hill said.

Tenacious: Gail Furness, SC, during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse where she was counsel assisting questioning some of Australia's most senior clerics.

Tenacious: Gail Furness, SC, during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse where she was counsel assisting questioning some of Australia's most senior clerics.

A large US study in 1987 included two families in which four babies had died of SIDS and related conditions. A Victorian judge dismissed murder charges against a woman alleged to have killed her four children as the case proceeded against Folbigg.

Ms Furness was counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse through some of its most dramatic hearings, including the questioning of Cardinal George Pell about his management of abuse survivor John Ellis’ legal compensation case against Sydney Archdiocese.

Ms Furness also questioned Cardinal Pell about his responses to abuse cases involving other priests during his time as a young Victorian Catholic priest and as Archbishop of Melbourne.

Mr Blanch will prepare a report at the end of the Folbigg inquiry. If he finds there is reasonable doubt about Folbigg’s conviction he may refer the case to the Court of Criminal Appeal for further consideration, Mr Speakman said.

Deeper reading: The case of Kathleen Folbigg

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This story Kathleen Folbigg baby killing inquiry to go ahead with star lawyer appointment first appeared on Newcastle Herald.