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Tuesday, 10 February 2015
Page: 376

Senator MARSHALL (VictoriaDeputy President of the Senate and Chair of Committees) (20:00): I welcome the news that Victoria's Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, IBAC, has initiated an own-motion review into the handling of Ms Corinna Horvath's complaints alleging police assault in March 1996 and associated Victoria Police disciplinary action.

Almost 20 years ago, police illegally entered the home of Corinna Horvath and subjected her to a vicious assault that included numerous punches to the face, which ultimately broke her nose and shattered a major artery. They falsely imprisoned her and denied her speedy medical attention for the trauma she suffered at the hands of the police. Once she made an official complaint, local police then filed numerous charges against her, which she had to fight in court. She filed for damages against police, and in 2001 County Court Judge Williams handed down his decision. He found police at fault of assault, unlawful arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, and found that the police told lies on matters of major significance. The independent judiciary found police at fault, yet no officer was disciplined or charged. Three of the four police officers who assaulted Corinna still work for Victoria Police.

I welcome the news that IBAC has appointed former Supreme Court Justice the Hon. Bernard Teague AO to lead the independent review into this case. Bernard Teague has a distinguished career as a Supreme Court judge and was appointed as the head of the Royal Commission into the Black Saturday fires in Victoria and more recently headed the inquiry into the Hazelwood mine fire. His work in heading up the royal commission into the Black Saturday fires has been universally recognised.

The IBAC review of the Corinna Horvath case is a very important opportunity to help resolve the ongoing issue of police human right abuses in the state of Victoria. The terms of reference for the own-motion review have not yet been released, but I would hope that the terms of reference would enable the Victorian people a chance to come forward and talk about their experience of how their complaints against police are handled. For what happened to Corinna 18 years ago is not an isolated incident. It is symptomatic of a failed system where police investigate complaints made against themselves.

There are numerous examples just like Corinna's case, where an official complaint made against police has been met with retaliatory charges being laid against the individual making the complaint, charges that are costly and stressful for the individual to defend. Complaints against the police are ultimately rejected as unfounded after police internal review. And even if an independent judiciary found police at fault, rarely is action is taken by police against themselves.    

In 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Committee reviewed the case of Corinna Horvath. The Human Rights Committee found that the internal review of the matter did not meet the requirements of an effective remedy. Specifically, it found that the investigation conducted by the Victorian Police did not call Corinna nor other witnesses to give evidence, that Corinna was refused access to the file, that there was no public hearing and that once the civil proceeding finding was made against the police there was no opportunity to reopen or recommence disciplinary proceedings.

Since the time of Corinna Horvath's initial assault, there have been some changes in the way complaints against police are handled. IBAC has been tasked with the role of receiving the initial complaint made against police. However, in the 2014 special report following their first year of operation, IBAC concedes that 'a low percentage of complaints to IBAC will result in an investigation by IBAC'. IBAC is on the whole a clearing house; the vast majority of cases are referred back for internal police investigations. When IBAC does review the outcome of the internal police investigations, their findings can be ignored by police command. For example, IBAC reviewed the case of a Stawell police officer who assaulted an individual by punching him in the face while he sat in his car. The internal police investigation referred the matter to the senior officer at the Stawell station. The complaint was rejected by this investigation. However, IBAC found that 'the senior duty officer at Stawell had been deficient in investigating the complaint'. It further found:

Witness statements or contact details had not been obtained. Exculpatory evidence had not been considered. Only evidence that would support a prosecution of the complainant had been considered.

In conclusion, IBAC found that 'Victoria Police's oversight and review of the investigation was inadequate.' However, Victoria Police simply ignored IBAC's review and took no action against the police officer involved.

Even in the face of the 2014 Human Rights Committee finding in the Corinna Horvath case, Victoria Police still refused to reopen the case. A spokeswoman for Victoria Police in September last year said that Chief Commissioner Lay had been given legal advice that the organisation could not re-consider further disciplinary action against the officers involved in a matter 'that has already been decided on the available evidence'.

It is clear the current system is flawed. Allowing police to investigate public complaints made against themselves is a conflict at best. It undermines public confidence in police and sends the message to police officers that they are not accountable for their actions. Police have no fear of the complaints process. Officers left without accountability will continue to act without fear.

There are a number of jurisdictions internationally that have effective and independent reviews of complaints made against police. There is no reason why Victoria cannot adopt the same approach. Since 2000, complaints made against police in Northern Ireland have been investigated by the independent Police Ombudsman. They employ over 150 people, two-thirds of whom are investigators, of which 75 per cent have never served in a police force. In Ontario, Canada, a civilian law enforcement agency independent of the police investigates circumstances involving police and civilians which have resulted in serious injury, including sexual assault, psychological injury or death

It conducts criminal investigations, and the police are obliged to fully cooperate with its investigations. None of its staff are serving police officers, and 50 per cent of its investigative staff have never been police officers. In the Canadian jurisdictions that do not have independent bodies, recent reviews recommend the establishment of an independent body to investigate their police forces.

In 2009, the Davies commission in British Columbia, Canada, into the death of Mr Frank Paul made this recommendation in its interim report:

Having concluded that the current practice of a home police department conducting criminal investigations of police-related deaths is fundamentally flawed due to conflict of interest, it follows that no amount of tinkering with the current practice can eliminate that underlying conflict of interest.

In Quebec, Canada, the ombudsman tabled a report recommending the establishment of an independent review of police:

After analyzing the existing process in Québec for investigating serious incidents involving police officers, the Québec Ombudsman believes that changes are necessary. The status quo is neither acceptable nor in the interest of police officers, citizens, or sound governance.

Jurisdictions closer to home have also struggled with the practice of police investigating themselves. The 2010 inquiry into the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee in Palm Island, Queensland recommended:

… that the future investigation of deaths in police custody be undertaken solely or primarily by the CMC as the specialist misconduct and anti-corruption body for the State of Queensland. To enable this to occur, I recommend that the CMC be resourced and empowered … to undertake the role.

In June 2013, the Police Integrity Commission of New South Wales inquiry into the police investigation into the death of Adam Salter stated:

There would be benefits if such a method of investigating critical incidents was adopted.

…   …   …

If critical incidents were investigated by a body that was independent of the NSWPF—

the New South Wales Police Force—

then there would be greater public confidence in the integrity of the investigations and less risk of the investigations failing to be properly conducted.

Ex-judge Bernard Teague has been tasked with an important investigation. I look forward to seeing the terms of reference and I sincerely hope that it has a wide enough scope to categorically deal with the matter of how complaints against police are managed in Victoria. We have seen too often, time after time, internal police investigations simply ignoring the evidence at hand and finding in favour of the police involved, with consequential judicial oversight finding police at serious fault. We need, and Victorians deserve no less, an independent body to investigate complaints against police if we intend to restore the integrity of the police force in Victoria.