The Immigration Department has been forced to pay at least $10,000 compensation to lawyers who were denied access to a compound at the Christmas Island detention centre, after the Victorian Supreme Court found staff at the centre had behaved in a “high-handed” manner, with an “unacceptable disregard” for the rule of law.Two lawyers from the law firm Maurice Blackburn, Elizabeth O’Shea and Min Guo, were denied access by immigration officials to the high security “White” compound for three days in April to complete an inspection of its conditions.
The department had already demanded that the lawyers have a court order to inspect the whole centre, which they had obtained. But when the lawyers arrived at the White compound, the regional manager for Christmas Island, Rebecca O’Reilly, said they couldn’t enter, for “privacy reasons”.
After the lawyers then gained consent from the asylum seekers inside, Ms O’Reilly told them they could not enter due to “security reasons”.
While the lawyers remained on the island, representatives from Maurice Blackburn had to return to the Supreme Court in Melbourne to seek an urgent application for access to the compound.
Justice Stephen Kaye, who had given the first court order to inspect the centre, ordered the officers to allow the lawyers to inspect the compound in the presence of three officers. The department complied, but insisted that five officers accompany the inspection.
Justice Kaye said the conduct of the officers was “high handed” and it involved an “unacceptable disregard” for the orders that he had made earlier.
He ordered the department pay the legal fees associated with the delay, saying the Immigration Minister and the federal government were expected to be “model” litigants in the 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,” he said.
A principal lawyer for Maurice Blackburn, Jacob Varghese, said he hoped this case was a “lesson” to the staff of the Immigration Department and that they are subject to the rule of law.
“What is satisfying about this judgement is that a judge has reminded them that this country is still governed by the rule of law, even if you’re the Department of Immigration, and you have to abide by court orders,” he said.
“They may feel like they are running an authoritative system out at Christmas Island, but the laws of Australia still apply.”
Mr Varghese said the law firm also believed the security concern cited by the department had been overblown.
“Having gone in, there were no security problems,” he said.
The lawyers are pursuing a class action on behalf of people who have been injured or pregnant while in detention on Christmas Island during the past three years and suffered physical or psychological injury.
Mr Varghese estimates the cost to the government will be about $10,000.
A spokesman for the department said: “As this matter is before the court, it would not be appropriate to comment.”
Meanwhile, the Immigration Department confirmed that every application completed by a journalist to visit the detention centres in Australia this financial year had also been denied, relating to “security concerns”.
“We do not formally record the numbers of media requests to access facilities, but in the current financial year to date we are aware of about a dozen requests from media, none of which has been approved or authorised,” Rachel Noble, the deputy secretary of the Immigration Department’s policy group, told a Senate committee.