One thing that the government should now consider, according to aviation lawyer Joseph Wheeler, is to immediately establish a family association to enable them to assist one another.
“One of the things we have seen that hasn't been dealt with fully at this particular time is support from the Government to establish a family association or family group to allow all these families, no matter where they are in the world, to come together to share their grief and hopefully to reduce it in some way accordingly,” said Wheeler, from Australia-based Shine Lawyers.
Such an association, or group, could take the form of a website, and can be something that can “bring the families together and allow them to talk to each other in a private manner”, said Wheeler.
Wheeler, who is considered to be an expert in the field of air law in the Asia Pacific region said that the formation of an association is provided for under the ‘Assistance to Aircraft Accident Victims and their Famlies’ of International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) policy.
He said that the ICAO policy also guarantees that families are provided with sufficient information about an aircraft accident.
“What’s lacking is perhaps the provision for information to families… there has been a lot of complaints of the quality of information and its timeliness… It could have been done better. The information was either being given out piecemeal or strategically or deficient. Either way, it's not what is required,” he said.
While the Malaysian government has decided to release only verified information, Wheeler argued that his understanding of the policy was that “any information, no matter how small, if it can be released to passengers' families, it should be released.”
“Especially in the first couple of weeks, any information would have given the families some hope, something to cling on to, and that was an opportunity that was missed,” he added.
For families who are thinking about their claims, Wheeler advised them to take time before jumping into any lawsuits, and most important to arm themselves with knowledge to understand their rights.
“What comes first is the families and the distress that they are suffering. They need to just take a step back and come to terms with what they are going through. Now is not the time to hastily jump into lawsuits or worry about those things, they should first come to terms with their loss.
Under the 1999 international treaty known as the Montreal Convention, families are entitled to a minimum of RM569,827.84 for each passenger lost on the plane. If a case goes to court, compensation has been known to go into the millions.
Claims can be settled without going to court, but they can be litigated under the convention. Going to court is the worst and last case scenario as it requires extra costs and heartache for the family involved but it may be necessary if the airline's insurance don’t provide a reasonable offer in line with what we say they owe the family.
Wheeler also warned families to be careful if the airline insurer is offering an early compensation, as they would normally ask to sign away important rights prematurely.
“The families can engage in discussions on compensation with the airline's insurer. It is not something we would recommend at this stage or any stage without proper legal advice and counsel," he said.
The government as well as Malaysia Airlines (MAS), said Wheeler, has done well by providing accommodation and travel and an initial assistance, though he stressed that all these are required under international policies.