A class action seeking compensation for false imprisonment for all Indigenous people imprisoned under now defunct provisions of Western Australia’s Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Act has been launched.

Sydney law firm Levitt Robinson launched the Federal Court action in Perth “to hold the State of WA accountable for the death of Julieka Dhu, who died in Police custody, aged 22, in August 2014, after being abused, manhandled, and her pleas for help, scorned and derided, by police and health personnel”, they announced in a statement Monday morning.

Ms Dhu had been taken to gaol for unpaid traffic injuries with injuries which, untreated, proved fatal.

In 2016, the inquest into Ms Dhu’s death found that the conduct of police and medical professionals was inadequate, which led to the Medical Board of Australia accusing the attending doctor of misconduct, of which they were subsequently found guilty by the State Administrative Tribunal.

In a briefing paper published in August 2020, the West Australian Law Society noted that more than 7000 people, most of them Indigenous, had been incarcerated under the State’s Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Act, 1994. In late September 2020, the Act was amended to remove provisions that led to imprisonment for unpaid fines.

The class action, brought in the names of the Administrators of Ms Dhu’s Estate, seeks compensation, including for false imprisonment for all Indigenous people (and their close dependent family members), who were imprisoned under the law.

Senior Partner Stewart Levitt said the action “is the first prong of a two-pronged campaign to persuade the West Australian Government to enforce their recognition of Indigenous people’s rights to dignity, freedom and equality before the law”.

He noted that Western Australia “has the world’s highest incarceration rate of people of a single racial group… Chinese Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province excepted”.

The campaign’s “second prong” will be the commencement of a class action later this year over the “inhumane and unlawful” treatment of children at Banksia Hill Detention Centre.

The law firm has raised the question over whether “the offending provisions in the Fines Enforcement legislation were constitutionally valid”.

Levitt said appropriate notices are being issued to the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments, inviting them to be heard.

The firm said the Banksia Hill action “will focus the courts and the eyes of the world on Australia’s dishonour of its international treaty obligations, with respect to the rights of children, the disabled and its indigenous minorities”.

National Indigenous Times has contacted the office of the Attorney General of Western Australia for comment.

More to come.

By Giovanni Torre