Late in July 2007 it was revealed that Auckland High Court Justice Paul Heath ruled last December – more than a year after Robert Fardell QC (right) fell to his death from the 15 metre high Takapuna Head cliffs into the rocky surf at high tide – that the Auckland Coroner’s findings and the evidence into the bizarre circumstances of Fardell’s death would be largely suppressed.
This Court ruling by Heath J followed prominent barrister Harry Waalken QC obtaining a restraining order in July 2006 preventing the Coroner from releasing his written report while the family sought a judicial review designed to censure and obscure the Coroner’s findings. Unfortunately for Waalken, the cat had already been let out of the bag at a special inquest conducted at the Auckland Coroner’s Court in June 2006.
This was when Auckland Coroner Dr. Murray Jamieson issued an oral report stating Mr. Fardell died from drowning, with the post-mortem examination revealing drowning was precipitated by massive injuries consistent with a fall immediately prior.
With foul play and suicide the likely scenarios facing police officers responding to report of a lifeless body on the rocks, foul play must reasonably be ruled out simply on the response of police that day finding a middle-age man unexpectedly dead.
What is known is that the police and ambulance response to the call of a body found 6:30 pm 11 December 2005 as the tide receded was unusually brief for an untimely and, presumably, uncertain cause of death. Although Mr. Fardell was 52 years old and in good health at the time he died, neither cordoning of the scene nor forensic analysis in-situ was apparently conducted.
The ambulance crew left shortly after inspecting the top of the cliff above where the body was found. Moreover, as Fardell was an extremely heavy-set man who additionally had to breach a fence to reach the edge of the cliff, it is highly unlikely that his fall could have been an accident or murder in this area active with people enjoying the early summer weekend. Nonetheless, Barrister Waalken vehemently pressed the Coroner that suicide was not a finding the Coroner could legally make – or even mention.
While the Coroner seemed ultimately prepared to delicately acquiesce to Waalken’s demands, Waalken’s subsequent legal motions that the Coroner permanently seal the evidence and his finding were rejected outright by the Coroner as incompatible with the fundamental precept of transparent proceedings and justice. It is this ruling by the Coroner that has now been overturned by Auckland High Court Justice Heath.
There has been some speculation, unproven, that Mr. Fardell had a life insurance policy, the death benefit from which may have been lost if the Coroner’s findings indicated suicide. However, it is more likely for reasons that will become apparent deeper in this story that, given the tremendous media exposure to the death, concerns were heightened within the judiciary that allowing the circumstances of the death to be made public would only increase the public’s curiosity as to what drove Fardell to such self-destruction.
It was anticipated that attention into the deceased’s sordid personal and professional life would then raise legitimate and troubling questions as to how such a person could reach the pinnacle of the legal profession and be next in line for a judicial appointment while those in authority had turned a blind eye to numerous disturbing complaints concerning his professional conduct for several years leading up to his death.
In the days immediately following his death, the New Zealand Herald ran front page stories claiming that Mr. Fardell died of a heart attack while swimming – irresponsible news reporting easily dispelled by facts that were immediately available to any reporter interested in accuracy. Other than the location of the body on rocks hundreds of meters from the nearest beach, Mr. Fardell was not dressed for a swim as he walked away from his house for the last time.
The inquest officer assigned to the case said the body was found with shorts and no shoes but that his experience was “articles of clothing quickly get separated from the body in the water”. And as any viewer of CSI can tell you, there are definitive forensic tests to quickly determine whether someone has suffered a fatal heart attack.
The inquest officer, Paul Herman of the Takapuna Police, immediately realized that he was in over his head on this investigation.
The last person to talk to the deceased was Chris Morris, son of (now retired) High Court judge David Morris. Chris Morris admitted to Herman that he had come to Fardell’s home this Sunday afternoon to discuss pending legal matters with the deceased but declined to grant a formal interview or provide further detail. Same with the widow. Also, as the press was widely reporting that ten High Court judges had attended the funeral, the estate hired Barrister Harry Waalken QC, widely regarded as a legal Houdini on medical cases, to advance the family’s position on the death – and stymie the investigation.
Faced with such powerful stonewalling Mr. Herman did not need to be a genius to identify that careers are made or lost on how someone might handle himself in an investigation where a litany of prominent lawyers and judges were not only expressing a keen interest in his approach to the investigation but were simultaneously speaking out effusively in the press about what a great man of integrity Mr. Fardell was.
Mr. Fardell undoubtedly had many fine qualities, but integrity was not one of them. It didn’t help that Mr. Herman quite quickly uncovered this darker side to the man. Herman casually revealed to a private investigator early in his investigation that an Asian gang Fardell had a falling out with were phoning him in an attempt to gain information. Within a month Herman was also informed that Fardell was being sued in the Auckland High Court for deceptive practices by former clients Paragon Oil Systems Limited and Vince and Jane Siemer, and that an application detailing allegations that Fardell three times perjured himself had been filed and served less than two weeks before his death.
Adding insult to a potentially career-killing injury for Fardell was the fact that Hugh Williams, a judge whom Fardell considered dim-witted and vain and, hence, was an irresistible butt of his jokes, was, as judge in the case, going out of his way to unduly protect Fardell. Fardell was a proud man whose career and legitimate standing among his peers meant everything to him.
This graft from an unlikely ally whom he had been all too quick to dismiss as unprofessional was a tremendous blow to his ego as much as an inescapable symbol of poetic justice. Yet another former client, New Zealand inventor Hugh Price, was also embroiled in a legal battle against Fardell before he died. Mr. Price had years earlier obtained a ruling from the Lay Observer that overruled the Law Society’s dismissal of a formal complaint he had lodged against Mr. Fardell for deceptive practices and seeming incompetence. Despite this ruling of the Lay Observer, the Law Society refused to act on the complaint.
Now, in December 2005, Mr. Price was again challenging Fardell in a current case for acting in a conflict of interest capacity. Topping off all this was Fardell’s close personal and business relationship with powerful Auckland insolvency practitioner Michael Stiassny, a relationship he would come to ruefully regret in the weeks before his death This was due in large part to (what Fardell was obviously convinced to be) an intentional release of information by his former friend that helped expose Fardell’s legal scams.
This information put Fardell’s career at risk in addition to severely undermining his credibility. Whether this was the straw in the mountain of straw that broke the camel’s back is difficult to say. However, given the significant betrayal by someone he had put so much trust in, it is not difficult to surmise this weighed heavily on Fardell as he solemnly walked to the precipice this otherwise sunny Sunday.
Ironically, as Stiassny was trustee of the Fardell family trust (Delfar Holdings Limited) at the time of his death Fardell could not escape his clutches even in death. In this pressure cooker where the powerful legal community’s obituary contrasted so sharply with the unfolding facts of the man’s real life, Officer Herman did the only thing he considered safe under the circumstances – he went to ground. As the Coroner’s representative, Officer Herman was responsible for publicizing the public inquest. Despite the tremendous number of contacts he had received from media and financially interested parties, Officer Herman informed only the widow and Harry Waalken QC of the public inquest that he had hastily convened barely 2 months after the death.
Officer Herman would arrogantly respond later to those who felt slighted by his subterfuge regarding the public inquest that he was under no obligation to inform interested parties of the date or setting. This was simply untrue. The Coroner’s Act 1988 specifically required him to notify in advance parties who may have an interest in the inquest. In the winter of 2006 Judge Borrin issued a ruling on behalf of the Police Complaints Authority of New Zealand stating Herman was derelict in his obligations under the Act.
The Coroner had earlier been compelled to conduct a special inquest due to Herman’s railroading of the public one. The year 2006 saw significant changes in law for the Coroner’s Office. The 1988 Act was repealed in favour of the Coroner’s Act 2006, which was passed into law in August 2006, and the establishment of the Coronial Services of New Zealand was formed on 1 July 2007.
Perhaps this chaos explains why the Coroner – having a year earlier been ready to issue his written inquest findings before a cease and desist order of the Court prevented him from doing so – released his report on 20 July 2007, seven months after Judge Heath finally gave him the approval to do so – sans the evidence and guts of the report. Perhaps the Coroner’s delay was a demonstration of conscious indignation at the Court imposed coverup.
So it was that what started as a whitewash intended to be quickly disposed of in record time was eventually whitewashed by judicial order more than a year and a half after the fact. And when one reads the Coroner’s brief final report, it is obvious that Mr. Waalken earned his substantial fees on this one. In legal speak, lawyers deceive by omission.
This is obvious in this case when one reads the Coroner’s two page report. This reporter’s favorite line from that report is “No evidence was located to suggest that Mr. Fardell harboured any intention to commit suicide. Indeed, his work on forthcoming cases suggested to the contrary”.
It is as perverse as it is ironic that the Coroner could not write massive injuries from a fall directly contributed to the drowning but was encouraged to get into the highly speculative (let alone non-medical) realm of saying busy people do not have time to commit suicide. Read Coroner’s censured report.
In obvious double-talk the new Coronial Services website states on its’ front page, “The (new) Act was designed to enhance public confidence in the integrity and independence of the coronial system.”
All too sadly, the net result has proven the opposite true.