The Department of Immigration has been handed a stern rebuke by a Victorian Court and blasted for its “authoritarian culture” after an officer tried to prevent solicitors gaining access to a Christmas Island detention facility.
Jacob Varghese, a principle in law firm Maurice Blackburn’s class actions department, told New Matilda he had no sympathy for a Department of Immigration official who prevented solicitors from his firm inspecting Christmas Island’s White Compound, in spite of the fact a court had ordered them to do so.
“I think we have a real problem with the culture in the Department of Immigration [because]they’re so used to saying no,” Varghese said.
“They’re used to saying no to asylum seekers, they’re used to saying no to detainees who have various needs, they’re used to saying no to journalists, and they’re used to saying no to lawyers.”
Solicitors from Maurice Blackburn travelled to Christmas Island in April to interview clients and inspect and photograph the White Compound but were told they would not be able to do so because of concerns about detainee privacy.
The trip to the Island was part of a class action the firm are running on behalf of a seven-year-old girl who spent a lengthy period in detention on Christmas Island. Her lawyers argue she suffered a range of physical and psychological injuries as a result of her detention and that the Commonwealth failed in its duty to provide an appropriate standard of care.
After being blocked from gaining access to the centre, Maurice Blackburn lawyers returned to the Victorian Supreme Court, which found an officer of the Department had failed to comply with the original Court order.
As a result, solicitors Elizabeth O’Shea and Min Guo were eventually allowed to make their inspection of the centre.
Justice Stephen Kaye said the Department’s officer had been “highhanded” and shown “an unacceptable disregard” for the previous order allowing the lawyers access to the centre.
“The defendants, being a Minister of the Crown and the Commonwealth of Australia, are expected to be model litigants in our courts. In this instance, in this litigation, the conduct of the defendants has fallen well short of the standard of conduct that the courts are entitled to expect of them,” Kaye’s judgement said.
While solicitors were initially told they could not access the facilities because of privacy issues, the Department later argued in court the pair were barred because of security concerns.
Kaye ordered the Department to pay costs on indemnity, an “extraordinary” measure that only occurs when a party “has engaged in conduct that can be properly described as unmeritorious, highhanded or improper”.
Varghese said his firm expected costs would be in excess of $10,000.
The broader class action being run by Maurice Blackburn seeks to establish what standard of care the Commonwealth owes to those held in detention centres.
Varghese, who described the current standard as “deplorable”, said if the action was successful it could potentially open the way for hundreds of asylum seekers detained on Christmas Island in the three years before August 2014 to make claims against the Commonwealth.
“It’s a sort of test case. We’re not seeking damages for every person in that class. We’re seeking findings about the standard of care,” he said.
“There hasn’t been a lot of scrutiny by courts about what is actually going on inside in the camps.”
The Department of Immigration has been contacted for comment.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.