Common Ground: open letter condemning inappropriate policing & unlawful searches

NSWCCL joins Amnesty International, LONSW, Shelter and TUNSW in condemning the inappropriate policing and unlawful searches imposed on residents of Common Ground in Camperdown. We stand in solidarity with the residents in lockdown. Below is our joint open letter - also published on the Legal Observers NSW website

Legal and human rights groups condemn the inappropriate policing and unlawful searches imposed on residents of Common Ground in Camperdown. We stand in solidarity with the residents in lockdown.

The sudden and poorly communicated hard lockdown of Common Ground residence, run by Mission Australia, has left residents confused and distressed.

We reiterate the ongoing calls of many other organisations that public health responses should be led by community and health organisations, not by police.

We express concern about the unlawful searches of residents’ deliveries, seizure and confiscation of personal items and subsequent distribution of personal items to the wrong recipients. The Public Health (COVID-19 Self-Isolation) Order No 3 and the Public Health Act 2010 do not provide any express or implied powers for NSW Health or NSW Police to search or confiscate the belongings of individuals who are required to self-isolate, or to impose limits on their consumption of legal substances.

This is a serious overreach of power that is particularly concerning in light of the misuse and continual extension of police powers during the COVID-19 pandemic. These actions, and the impunity given to NSW Police officers to wrongly issue COVID fines without subsequent accountability, demonstrate a disregard for the rule of law. The public health implications of this disregard are significant. Residents with dependency issues are at risk of suffering withdrawal symptoms from sudden forced detox. The sense of surveillance and control experienced by residents further compounds the mental health strain of lockdown. 

We note that similar unlawful searches by Victoria Police during the 2020 Flemington and North Melbourne public housing towers lockdown were suspended following pressure from civil rights and community groups. The lockdown was found to have breached residents’ human rights in a subsequent Victorian Ombudsman report. We urge NSW Health and NSW Police to refrain from searching or otherwise tampering with residents’ deliveries and to ensure powers are exercised within the remit of the law and with appropriate sensitivity to the health, wellbeing and human rights of residents. 

Under international human rights standards, the enforcement of public health orders must be necessary and proportionate, and in the pursuit of the protection of public health. The searching of deliveries by NSW Health and NSW Police does not pass any of these tests.

We also express concern about the lack of identification by NSW Police, with Police covering badges and not making their identity explicit to residents.

NSW Health and NSW Police must commit to using the powers granted to them under the Public Health Act 2010 in a manner that respects human rights. NSW Police should also publicly release guidelines concerning their policing of public health orders. 

We call on all relevant authorities to:

  • Communicate proactively, clearly, frequently and respectfully with residents in this and any subsequent lockdowns; 
  • Respond to any reasonable demands from residents; and
  • Work with communities to ensure that the lockdown is carried out in an appropriate way that is responsive to their needs and supports the public health objective.