Public interest law work

It is increasingly necessary to undertake legal action to defend human rights and civil liberties against powerful interests. Litigation can be the push that transforms community momentum into action. Fitzroy Legal Service has a long history rallying this support and bringing on the cases that support social change.

This work strengthens the rights of the whole community. Bringing social causes before the courts builds awareness, social engagement, and can set precedents that benefit the community more broadly. Law reform work driven by affected communities creates opportunities for social engagement, empowerment and change.

Our work in this area includes:

DOCTORS FOR REFUGEES – We brought the case of Doctors for Refugees Incorporated v the Commonwealth of Australia (2016) to the High Court of Australia, challenging new secrecy provisions in the Australian Border Force Act 2015 (Cth) on the grounds of unjustifiable burden on the freedom of political communication. Advocacy and lobbying alongside the case engaged a broad collaboration of legal, health and refugee advocates. In October 2016, an exemption was passed excluding health care professionals from the operation of the Act. Our clients pressed on with the case, and subsequently, the Commonwealth Government introduced and passed substantial reforms to the secrecy provisions under challenge, expanding the scope for communication on matters of political and social concern for all workers in immigration detention centre environments.

HARM REDUCTION ADVOCACY – We have long played a leading role in advocating for harm reduction responses to the health and community impacts of drug use through legal education and law reform.

OVERTURNING THE HOMELESSNESS BAN – In 2017 we have successfully campaigned with peers and community agencies against ‘anti-camping’ local laws that would have permitted confiscation, fines and disposal of any items being used to sleep in public spaces. Our concerns focussed on the social harm of policing and punishing homelessness, and the varied reasons persons experience homelessness, including drawing specific attention to the major contributing factor of family violence, as well as the lack of affordable and short-term housing in Melbourne. The City of Melbourne received over two hundred submissions opposing the adoption of punitive approaches to the homeless community. In 2016 we successfully lobbied for repeal of ‘move on’ powers on the basis of unintended impacts on the homeless community.

A MEDICALLY SUPERVISED INJECTING CENTRE – We have successfully fought alongside health, justice, peer and community sector organisations for the introduction of a Medically Supervised Injecting Centre into the City of Yarra to stem the loss of life from fatal overdoses in our local community. Our work has included submissions to the Coroner’s Court, a Parliamentary Inquiry into the Pilot Program, and work with allied health and legal practitioners. The Medically Supervised Injecting Centre will begin operating in North Richmond in July 2018.

THE PARLIAMENTARY INQUIRY INTO DRUG LAW REFORM – We have successfully pushed for government recognition of the disproportionate socio-economic harms of stigma and discrimination affecting people who use drugs, reflected in the recommendation that the Victorian Government ‘treat the offences of personal use and possession for all illicit substances as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue’ [Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Drug Law Reform Final Report – Released 27 March 2018]. 

CHILDREN IN BARWON PRISON – In 2016 we partnered with the Human Rights Law Centre to successfully litigate on behalf of minors held in Barwon maximum security adult prison in the Supreme Court of Victoria and the Full Court of the Supreme Court of Victoria that their detention and the decision making underpinning it was unlawful. The children we acted for had been placed in lock down for upwards of 20 hours per day, had been unable to access lawyers, had not had contact with family, and were no longer receiving schooling or programs. The case argued that the Government acted unlawfully in sending children to Barwon, had failed to act in the best interests of children in its care, and was in breach of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights. The placement of children in Barwon prison was the subject of four separate proceedings. Each was successful, with the ultimate result that children have been removed from Barwon Prison.

BENDIGO STREET RESIDENTS – In 2016, in partnership with the Homeless Persons Union, we advocated on behalf of residents involved in a seven-month occupation of vacant houses in Bendigo Street, Collingwood in multiple proceedings in the Supreme Court of Victoria. We sought injunctions preventing eviction on varied grounds, including that the human rights of those effected had not been considered. The occupation brought attention to the rates of homelessness experienced by Aboriginal people (25% of the homeless population), the length of the public housing waiting list (35,000+), and the numbers of vacant properties in Victoria supported by negative gearing taxation policies (80,000). The residents of Bendigo Street included women and children escaping family violence, families experiencing homelessness, and a strong organising presence from Aboriginal community members, raising awareness of the specific injustice of being homeless in their own lands. During the course of proceedings 500 million dollars of public housing stock was signed over to Aboriginal Housing Victoria. Under the purview of the Court, resettlement options were identified through collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services. By consensus, priority was given to women, and mothers with children, most of whom were able to access long term public housing prior to eviction. Safe housing for four families, three women, and one Aboriginal elder were ultimately achieved. More than half of the residents ultimately housed are Aboriginal and all residents to our knowledge remain in safe secure housing to this day. The Bendigo Street occupation projected the gravity of the homelessness and housing crisis, whilst we worked with residents on resourcing policy, providing legal education, as well as conducting litigation. 

EAST WEST LINK CASE – We brought proceedings that called the government to account on the accuracy of representations made about the largest infrastructure project Victoria had ever committed to. The case traversed the Supreme Court of Victoria, Court of Appeal, High Court of Australia, and was remitted to the Supreme Court of Victoria, in the space of several months. The case argued that the public-private partnership through which the East West Link was to be constructed, financed and operated involved the State in ‘carrying on a business’. It was further alleged that the representations made in the short form of the business case as to the Net Economic Benefit and Benefit Cost Ratio of the project were misleading and deceptive, and made in the course of trade and commerce. Injunctions were sought preventing the continued publication of the representations, and entering into contracts where those representations had been made in the procurement process. Discovery of documents, including the long form of the business case, were opposed by the State and the Linking Melbourne Authority on the basis of public interest immunity. Following the 2014 election and change of government, the business case was released for inspection to the public. On 15 April 2015, the government announced the road project would no longer proceed.