Thursday, 10 November 2016

The government's attack on Australian Human Rights Commission president continues unabated

On 28 May 2013 a small group of students sought to use facilities at the dedicated Oodgeroo Unit within the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and were asked to leave.   

The subsequent comments of one or more QUT students on Facebook resulted in a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission by a university administrative employee under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

Conciliation between the parties under the auspices of the Commission failed by August 2015 and, the employee then made application to the Federal Circuit Court Of Australia in Prior V Queensland University Of Technology & Ors to seek what she obviously thought was justifiable legal remedy.

The judgment dismissed that part of the application brought against three students under s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. However the remainder of the matter involving a fourth student and the university and its named employees is next before the court on 21 November 2016 in what appears to be a directions hearing.

The Turnbull Government leaped on this summary judgment to continue its public attack on Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs – which had commenced in earnest in February last year - culminating this month in Malcolm Bligh Turnbull raising the possibility of sections of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975  being reviewed and possibly amended and suggesting that the Commission had damaged its credibility.

A swift response came from the Australian Human Rights Commission in the form of a media release on Monday 7 November 2016:

There has been considerable public interest in the Commission’s complaint handling processes under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986.  There has been particular interest In the Commission’s handling of complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. 

In relation to the recent QUT case, it is a matter of public record that the Commission terminated this matter in August 2015. The Commission has had no role in the subsequent law suit in the Federal Circuit Court.

At no stage does the Commission initiate or prosecute a complaint. If the Commission receives a complaint in writing alleging a discriminatory act, the Act provides that the Commission must investigate the facts and attempt to conciliate the matter.

The Commission’s focus is on resolving disputes so parties can avoid court proceedings. Of complaints where conciliation was attempted, 76% were successfully resolved in 2015-16.

Only 3% of complaints finalised by the Commission were lodged in court. For example, of the over 80 complaints finalised under the racial hatred provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act last year, only one proceeded to court at the initiation of the complainant.

In the 2015-16 reporting year the average time it took the Commission to finalise a complaint was 3.8 months. In that same reporting year, 94% of surveyed parties were satisfied with the Commission’s service.

The Commission has no judicial powers, and it makes no legally binding determinations as to whether unlawful acts have occurred. The Commission has no statutory power to prevent a complainant proceeding to court once the Commission terminates the complaint. 

The Commission has provided advice to successive governments and Attorneys-General on amendments to the Australian Human Rights Commission Act.  In particular, the Commission has asked for amendments to streamline the process by raising the threshold for accepting complaints.

Refutation of the Turnbull Government's position is also found elsewhere.

Excerpts from Castan Centre for Human Rights LawOfficial Blog, 7 November 2016:

This is all the Australian Human Rights Commission and/or Professor Gillian Triggs’ fault

No it isn’t. The AHRC is not a party in the Prior litigation. Professor Triggs is not acting for Ms Prior (Ms Prior has engaged her own solicitors and counsel). And the student respondents were not in the case because the AHRC put them in there; they were in there because the applicant, Ms Prior, sued them when proceedings were commenced in the Federal Circuit Court in October 2015.

Applicants bring proceedings for discrimination (including under section 18C), not the AHRC. There is one applicant in the proceedings and it is Ms Prior.

If the claims were lacking in substance, the AHRC should have thrown them out – they should never have got to the Court

In order to bring a claim for unlawful discrimination under Federal legislation, the AHRC is the first step in the process. A complaint is made to the AHRC, and the AHRC will then try to resolve the complaint by assisting the parties to reach an agreement for resolution. If the complaint can’t be resolved, the AHRC “terminates” the complaint, and the complainant can then take the terminated complaint off to the Federal Court or the Federal Circuit Court to start a court case.

The AHRC cannot decide discrimination claims, because the AHRC is not a court – it doesn’t have any judges and it doesn’t have the power to impose a resolution on the parties to the complaint. The AHRC cannot decide that a complaint is hopeless and should go no further. The AHRC cannot decide that a complaint will invariably succeed and award damages to the complainant. The function of the AHRC is to investigate (and, if possible, to conciliate), not to decide. The deciding needs to happen in a place where Federal judicial power can be exercised, namely, in the Federal Court or the Federal Circuit Court.

It is true that there are many different grounds on which the AHRC (acting through a delegate of the President of the AHRC) can “terminate” a complaint (which is the necessary precondition for the matter to go to a Federal court). Those grounds include that the delegate “is satisfied that the alleged unlawful discrimination is not unlawful discrimination” or “is satisfied that the complaint was trivial, vexatious, misconceived or lacking in substance”.

According to press reports, Ms Prior’s complaint was terminated on the more commonly used ground that the delegate was “satisfied that there is no reasonable prospect of the matter being settled by conciliation”.

Shouldn’t the AHRC should have taken the harder line? For two reasons, no.

The first is that it wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference. Ms Prior’s right to commence court proceedings would have been exactly the same regardless of the ground on which the complaint was terminated by the delegate. Ms Prior decided, presumably with the benefit of legal advice from the experienced firm of employment lawyers who are acting for her, to commence proceedings against all of the respondents. That was a choice which the AHRC could not have denied her, regardless of what view was expressed by the President or her delegate as to the merits of the claim at the time the complaint was terminated.

The second is that Ms Prior’s complaint is still continuing against four of the respondents (including QUT, who are also represented by highly experienced employment lawyers). Those respondents did not seek to have the claims against them struck out summarily, which suggests that Ms Prior’s claim as a whole could not be properly have been described, at the time the complaint was terminated, as hopeless.

The case proves that section 18C is terrible and must be abolished

Good luck trying to make that one work, given the basis on which the respondents succeeded in convincing the court to dismiss the claims against them. The two respondents who succeeded on the basis of the Court’s analysis of section 18C succeeded on the basis that (a) their Facebook posts were not made “because of” Ms Prior’s (or anyone else’s) race and (b) the posts were not reasonably likely to give rise to offence, insult, humiliation or intimidation.

In making those findings, the Federal Circuit Court expressly referred to the jurisprudence of section 18C to the effect that the section does not extend to “mere slights” but requires “profound and serious effects”. (This is jurisprudence which needs to be mostly ignored in order to advance the case that the words “offend” and “insult” somehow create an overly broad restriction on free speech).

The final respondent succeeded on the basis that there was no evidence that he had made the Facebook post alleged to constitute the breach of section 18C, which has nothing to do with the section, and everything to do with orthodox principles of establishing a “no case to answer submission”. In any litigation, successful defendants will feel aggrieved at having been put to the time and expense of defending claims which failed. However, the fact that a claim fails does not mean that the law used to bring the claim should be demolished.

No-one sensibly suggests dismantling the law of defamation every time a defamation plaintiff loses, or suggests tearing up the law of torts every time a personal injury plaintiff is unsuccessful. For the same reason, it is hard to see any sensible legal basis to suggest that the decision of the Federal Circuit Court last Friday should affect anyone other than the parties to the claim. If only the ability to distinguish “sensible legal basis” from “nonsense” was a precondition to publishing on the topic of section 18C . . .

No comments: