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Tuesday, 21 May 1985
Page: 2215


Senator REYNOLDS —Is the Minister representing the Attorney-General aware that two Queensland clinics for planned parenthood were raided by State police yesterday, that the records of thousands of patients were confiscated and that many women who were at the clinics awaiting appointments were harassed? In Townsville alone at least four tonnes of records were seized. At a preliminary court hearing this morning police have refused to release these records or to indicate for what purpose they will be used. As this action is a blatant breach of the confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship, can the Minister offer advice to the thousands of women who are in fear of their private medical records being used in court either as evidence or as a lever to force them to appear as witnesses? What rights are available to these thousands of Queensland women who over a number of years have attended planned parenthood clinics for a variety of surgical procedures, including legal termination of pregnancy on the recommendation of two supporting doctors?


The PRESIDENT —Order! In that the honourable senator is not asking for a legal opinion, I will ask the Minister representing the Attorney-General to answer the question.


Senator GARETH EVANS —The honourable senator will not get a legal opinion, Mr President. I am not in the business of offering those any more. I have heard radio reports that people attending certain Queensland clinics, including people not involved in any alleged abortion procedure, were photographed, questioned and harassed and had their medical records seized. If the reports are true, it is a matter of grave concern, and it would appear, a graphic example of law enforcement going haywire, ignoring the very values of personal liberty and privacy that the law and the legal system is supposed to be established to protect.

The question is, basically, a matter of how a State wants to police and administer its own criminal law. On the face of it it would not appear that questions of Federal law are involved; nonetheless the whole matter is, again on the face of it, an excellent illustration of the need for some overarching national civil liberty standards to be enacted for protection. I recognise, as any lawyer would, that it is possible, pursuant to warrant in every jurisdiction in Australia, to seize more documents than may strictly prove to be necessary. That follows from operational requirements of police in conducting certain quite legitimate law enforcement procedures. But in the case of medical records and the extreme sensitivity of the personal materials there involved, it is obviously the case that any such police powers should be exercised extremely sparingly and again, on the face of the reports this morning, that does not seem to have been the case.

I draw the Senate's attention, finally, to the report of the Australian Law Reform Commission on privacy which was tabled in this place on 14 December 1983 which, in the context of Commonwealth law and police agencies, laid down recommended guidelines for the conduct of search and seizure excursions of this kind-guidelines which include keeping records securely and restricting access to those who need to use them for the purposes of a particular investigation. I would certainly hope that the Queensland Government would act as the Commonwealth Government is now doing to consider and implement these recommended guidelines. But the track record of the Queensland Government on civil liberties matters over the years gives no cause whatsoever for optimism that any such course of action will occur.