It was supposed to be a training exercise.
What transpired was the worst peacetime disaster in Australian maritime history.
Aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne and destroyer HMAS Voyager were doing manoeuvres south of Nowra, New South Wales, on February 10, 1964.
Tragically, the two vessels collided, with the larger aircraft carrier slicing the destroyer in half.
Eighty-two crew died, but many more carried irrevocable mental and physical scars.
One such man was Geoffrey Singline, who was on the deck of the aircraft carrier as it ploughed into the smaller vessel.
As Bendigo woman Angela Singline explains, her father, who saw bodies being taken from the water and helped clothe survivors, was unable to speak about the incident for years.
That was, in part, because of the veil of silence impose by the Australian Navy.
“They (crew) were told not discuss the incident, not to wear any hats to identify they were on ship. They were spat at, rotten tomatoes thrown at them (by civilians), called killers,” Angela said.
“The first week of the incident he (Geoffrey) felt really numb, he didn't want to go back on the ship, he felt like it was a floating tomb.
“When the incident happened he kept hearing screams for help through recurring nightmares.”
But Geoffrey – 23 at the time – had to complete the remainder of a nine-year term, the majority of which was on the same ship.
The trauma of the incident was apparent to Geoffrey’s family, who had a fractured relationship with the serviceman for many years afterwards.
Delayed PTSD diagnosis
It was only in 2000 that Geoffrey sought help.
“Dad realised he had some problems - he'd lost everybody, he didn't have a strong relationship with his children,” Angela said.
“He needed to do something about his life so he started getting some counselling through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.”
Through his counselling he was approached by lawyer David Forster, who had handled a number of personal injury claims against the federal government by survivors.
Geoffrey became part of what has since been considered Australia's longest compensation battle, given all cases were handled individually as opposed to a class action.
Mr Singline’s case took seven years to be heard – and was expedited because he was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Geoffrey was awarded $600,000 in damages in the NSW Supreme Court, but only received $250,000 due to unexpected legal fees, which were said to have ‘blown out’.
He agreed to $55,000 – $100,000 in costings with Mr Forster’s law firm, according to Angela.
Unfortunately, Geoffrey was not the only one who felt deceived by the lawyer.
Mr Forster, who handled almost 90 claims, was accused of obtaining millions of dollars of clients' money by unlawfully double billing them, among other trust accounting breaches, which resulted in another lengthy legal battle.
The Law Institute of Victoria in 2008 examined the accounts of Mr Forster's firm, where some serious irregularities were uncovered.
The Legal Services Board placed the now-defunct firm, Hollows Lawyers, into receivership in 2013, and receivers were charged with trying to recoup $7.2 million for 31 Voyager clients who were owed money.
Too sick to challenge lawyer
All the while, Geoffrey was dying.
“He was distraught,” Angela said.
“He had 60 days after his judgement was handed down (in 2007) to appeal the fees, but couldn't because he was sick and having radiotherapy.”
Angela became heavily involved in the case in 2015, when handed the file by her father on his deathbed.
"My dad didn't have the mettle to fight that," she said.
“I know that my dad passed away still very bitter about knowing he had been ripped off by this lawyer.”
Angela took umbrage at a numerous aspects of the case, not least the lack of regulation placed on lawyers of yesteryear.
“No one raised the red flag, this man was taking advantage of vulnerable people,” she said.
“My dad put his faith in that law firm, he never questioned that it would be unethical, he never questioned that lawyer.
“He thought the lawyer wouldn't have done anything but right by him because him and his colleagues had gone through this awful incident.
“They had been traumatised by the Commonwealth by having to fight for compensation through the Supreme Court and traumatised again by being ripped off.”
The receivers’ case against Mr Forster, who was disbarred during the process, concluded in December 2016, where a settlement sum of $1.8 million was to be paid back to former clients of the law firm.
That wasn’t the end, unfortunately.
The Supreme Court had to provide directions on who, out of the numerous clients who were duped, would receive money.
Those charged twice by the law firm or those without signed fee agreements were prioritised, meaning Geoffrey Singline was not awarded anything at the final Supreme Court hearing in June.
But for Angela, fighting the injustice to the end and forcing long-term change was the main priority.
“No one was there at the final hearing, a lot of people lived interstate or died, others had had enough,” she said.
Two Royal Commissions to attribute fault for the collision and countless legal hearings had worn out the service personnel and latterly, their families.
“The fight for compensation just about destroyed my dad, he felt suicidal on many occasions,” she said.
Laws governing legal fee disclosure changed in 2015, according to Angela, which was an important result one of the lengthiest legal processes Australia has seen.