United Nations committee challenge to Victorian police complaints system

A decision handed down this week by the United Nations Human Rights Committee has significant implications for how complaints against police are dealt with in Victoria.  This decision comes at a time when both major political parties are signalling intention to review the powers and role of the Victorian Independent Broad-based Anti –Corruption Commission (IBAC ).

“This decision is extremely timely and should provide the incentive to both political parties to commit to introducing the required changes to IBAC that will enable it to function as an effective independent police complaints investigation body ” said Ariel Couchman , Director of the Young People’s Legal Rights Centre, today.

The UN committee in the case of Horvath v Australia has given Australia and in particular the Victorian government 180 days to remedy the way in which serious complaints against police are dealt with.

“In a very strong and clear decision the committee has made it clear that the state has a direct responsibility for serious complaints against police. The state must ensure effective and independent investigation and must actively remedy the violation whether through disciplinary proceedings or compensation.”said Ariel Couchman.

“Over our 10 years of legal practice at the Young People’s Legal Rights Centre we have rarely seen complaints brought by young people against police lead to an acknowledgement of wrongdoing or appropriate disciplinary action against the officers involved. Attempts by the Victorian government to establish an independent body to investigate these complaints has failed to date. Both the OPI and now IBAC do not have resources or the powers  required to independently investigate police complaints.  Currently IBAC investigates a few corrupt police but otherwise 99% of complaints are referred back to Victoria Police to investigate themselves. “ 

“In our view the current police complaints system is inadequate. The government must provide an effective and impartial body to investigate and punish police officers who engage in criminal offences. Currently Victoria Police internal investigations lack adequacy, transparency and independence.”  

The decision on Horvath v Australia requires the Victorian government to re-open the disciplinary proceedings against all police involved and to put in place broader system changes to ensure ‘independent and impartial investigation’ of serious and criminal complaints against police.

In March 1996 Corinna Horvath aged 21 was viciously assaulted by police fracturing her nose and rendering her unconscious.  Subsequently the County Court of Victoria found the individual police officers liable for assault, trespass, wrongful arrest and false imprisonment. An internal police investigation by the Ethical Standards Department (ESD) looking at the same evidence as the County Court dismissed disciplinary charges on the basis of lack of evidence. Police involved continue to be employed today.

“The UN Committee also called on Victorian government to amend Section 123 of the Police Regulation Act (Vic) to bring it into compliance with human rights law. Currently the Act allows the government to avoid responsibility (including compensation) for victims of criminal acts by police. The Committee found this to be a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Australia is a signatory to “.

The Horvath v Australia decision highlights the importance of governments protecting their citizens’ human rights by investigating allegations of violations promptly thoroughly and effectively, and by ensuring redress when violations occur.

This month the Court of Appeal in the Supreme Court of Victoria will hear an appeal of Bare v Small. This case is about how serious complaints against police officers were dealt with by the state and will  determine whether the human rights of the young man Nassir Bare required that his complaint against police was dealt with independently of Victoria Police. In this case the OPI determined not to investigate the complaint and referred it back to Victoria Police to investigate.