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The Dust Disease Tribunal on Level 11 of John Maddison Tower in Sydney is one of the saddest courts in NSW.

It’s where Joanne Wade, Slater + Gordon’s State Practice Leader for Civil Liability, takes her cases for hearing as a last resort. In the toughest cases, the plaintiffs have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and have fewer than 12 months to live. 

About 300-400 cases are commenced each year and 95 per cent settle at compulsory mediation. Those that don’t are heard in the tribunal and speed can become very important. Sometimes Wade, 45, receives a call that a client is gravely ill and has to call the court to arrange a bedside hearing, where a tribunal Judge, barristers and the lawyers travel to the plaintiff’s home or hospital.

In 2014, Wade was the lawyer for Steven Dunning, a former BHP steelworker from the Hunter Valley who won a landmark $2.2 million damages claim against the resources giant when he was 54.

Dunning suffers from terminal mesothelioma from inhaling asbestos dust while working at BHP’s steel blast furnaces as a 19-year-old in the early 1980s.

Wade was the first person in her family to attend university and hasn’t looked back since her first class at Macquarie University.

She is one of a handful of Accredited Specialists working in the dust diseases area of the law. “In the asbestos field, you know everyone,” she says. “It’s a highly specialised field of law and one of the saddest.”

Wade, leads a team of three lawyers and eight support staff.

“As an asbestos lawyer you don’t know what your day will be like day to day. You might have a plan for your day and then you get a phone call that someone has taken a turn for the worst and you need to quickly and urgently prepare documents. Sometimes if the person is really sick, we can make an application to bring their case on quicker and have an urgent bedside hearing because they are going to die. The judge will come out to the home, as will the barristers and the defendant lawyers.

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