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World Day of Social Justice: Trial of Manus Island class action nears

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Lawyers working on a landmark class action on behalf of Manus Island detainees have marked World Day of Social Justice by outlining some of the key figures that highlight the significant legal hurdles involved in the case.

The United Nations’ General Assembly designated 20 February as an annual World Day of Social Justice in 2007, inviting Member States (including Australia) to devote the day to supporting international efforts that improve access to social wellbeing and justice.

The Manus Island class action is set to start on 1 May 2017 and is expected to be the largest trial concerning immigration detention in Australian legal history.

Slater and Gordon Practice Group Leader Rory Walsh said the detainees’ fight for social justice has not been an easy journey.

“This is one of the most factually and logistically complex class actions in recent times,” Mr Walsh said.

“It has been building for two and a half years now and will go to trial after the six parties have considered more than 200,000 discovered documents, 104 witness outlines and 17 expert reports.

“This case will be the largest and most forensic public examination of the events and conditions at the Manus Island centre and reflects the unquestionable importance of access to justice in the Australian legal system.”

Mr Walsh said the case would shine a light on the conditions that Manus Island detainees have been forced to experience for the past four years.

“The extraordinary secrecy surrounding the Manus Island detention centre has meant that, for too long, the detainees’ experiences have been a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’,” Mr Walsh said.

“The remote location of the centre, the difficulties involved in client access and extensive restrictions on workers speaking out publicly have all significantly complicated the legal journey.

“The group members in this case have had to endure an extremely difficult burden for an extraordinary length of time but we are confident that, come May 2017, their stories will be heard in way that, so far, has not been possible.”


In Numbers
The pursuit of justice on Manus Island

  • Six parties including the plaintiff, three defendants (the Commonwealth, G4S, Broadspectrum) and two third parties (IHMS and Wilson Security).
  • 1,905 group members, covering the overwhelming majority of people detained on Manus Island since 2012.
  • More than 200,000 documents discovered during proceedings.
  • 104 witness outlines, including 71 filed by the plaintiff and 33 filed by the defendants and third parties. Witnesses include detainees currently being held on Manus Island; detainees who were previously held on Manus Island; detainees who were sent to Australia for medical treatment; doctors who worked at the detention centre; security workers; and social workers.
  • 17 expert reports, including doctors; psychiatrists; psychologists; security experts; prison inspectors; and prison infrastructure experts.
  • An estimated 3 to 6 month trial scheduled to start on 1 May 2017.

Mr Walsh said the Manus Island class action would also determine a number of important legal issues, which could have far-reaching implications on Australia’s ‘offshore processing’ policy.

“One of the central disputes of this action is whether the Commonwealth is in effective control of the Manus Island detention centre and therefore owes a duty of care to protect the people being held there from foreseeable harm,” Mr Walsh said.

“This case addresses systemic issues that have been affecting detainees in relation to the provision of medical services, shelter and accommodation, food, water and security.

“The action will also determine whether the detention of asylum seekers at the centre amounted to false imprisonment, following the PNG Supreme Court’s decision last year that the operation of the centre was not permitted under the country’s Constitution.

“This class action exemplifies one of the fundamental principles of social justice: that all people with an Australian legal issue have a right to have their case heard openly in an Australian court.”