The ACT is one of a growing number of jurisdictions around Australia that has a Human Rights Act recognising some of our fundamental human rights: the right to free education, the right to work and the right to privacy, to name a few. But what is the use of these rights if there is no simple, affordable way to enforce them if they are threatened?
Right now, if a person's human rights are breached by ACT government bodies or services, the only recourse available is to take a legal action to the Supreme Court. There are significant cost barriers associated with this type of legal action, and no ability to seek compensation for the harm done.
But that could be about to change.
Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, ACTCOSS and over 500 Canberrans have joined the ACT Human Rights Commission in calling for the law to be changed so Canberrans can make a complaint if their rights are breached under the Human Rights Act. We launched a petition which is set to be tabled by MLA Dr Marisa Patterson in the Legislative Assembly today.
Our petition calls for two things. First, it calls for the Human Rights Act to be amended so that any Canberran can make a complaint about a breach of their human rights to the Human Rights Commission. Second, it asks that if a complaint cannot be resolved by conciliation, then it be referred to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal for resolution.
This would transform the Human Rights Act from being an expression of our values into a tool that can be used by every Canberran to ensure our human rights are protected.
As a lawyer, I have seen many clients whose human rights have been breached - but who have few legal options to enforce them. For example, clients ordered to vacate their public housing homes despite having nowhere else to go. Or children being denied their right to an education because they have been exposed to the criminal legal system.
The ACT has led the nation in so many ways. We were the first jurisdiction to pass a Human Rights Act into law. We have implemented nation-leading (in fact, world-leading) clean energy policies. We are set to become the first jurisdiction to ban the imprisonment of primary-school-aged children.
We have much to be proud of, but we also have much more work to do.
Human rights abuses continue in Canberra's prison, with Aboriginal women being routinely strip-searched at disproportionate and discriminatory rates. The right to keep our families together is a right in name only for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families in Canberra, who face some of the highest rates of child removal nationwide. Many children still face significant barriers to accessing their right to free education that is appropriate to their needs.
We welcome the tabling of our petition in the ACT Legislative Assembly this week, and strongly urge every MLA to support its demands for an accessible, affordable complaints mechanism. This reform won't eliminate human rights abuses from the ACT, but it will give Canberrans a fighting chance to have their rights recognised and upheld when they are threatened - and that can only be a good thing.
- Sophie Trevitt is co-chair of the ACT chapter of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights.