RLC in the Media: Law firms look to launch landmark strip-search class action against NSW police

Exclusive: Lawyers say legal action could help ensure legislative change in New South Wales.

Michael McGowan reports for Guardian Australia  

After Becca was strip-searched by the New South Wales police at a music festival in 2017, she remembers feeling powerless to do anything about what had happened to her.

“I felt like, who am I going to complain to? There’s no one I can talk to about it,” she told the Guardian.

“The only people I can complain to about the police would be the police and I just didn’t really trust them after what happened.”

But when the 25-year-old saw a post on Facebook calling for stories of people’s experiences being strip-searched, the international student from the UK decided to speak up.

“I just thought, despite how anxious I felt about what happened, if I can talk about it maybe it will help other people feel a bit less alone and like they can talk about it too,” she said.

On Wednesday, Becca will be one of the first signatories when the Redfern Legal Centre and Slater and Gordon announce the two firms are beginning formal investigations into the possibility of a landmark class action against the state’s police force over alleged “systemic” misuse of strip searches in the past six years.

It comes after a mountain of evidence about the misuse of strip searches by police stemming from police watchdog investigations, coroner’s reports and internal police documents has failed to convince lawmakers to push for legislative change.

“Horrific stories of police strip-searches continue to come to light, including from children as young as 10 years old who were directed to strip naked, squat and cough, lift their genitals, and have a police officer look into their body cavities, without the support of a parent or guardian present,” Samantha Lee, the police accountability lawyers from the Redfern Legal Centre alleged.

“By seeking long-overdue justice for people who have been unlawfully searched, this class action is also an important step toward achieving change to prevent more traumatic and unnecessary strip searches in NSW.”

Becca had lived in Australia for a little over a year when she was strip-searched by police after a drug detection dog sat down next to her as she waited to enter the Lost Paradise music festival on the NSW Central Coast in 2017.

Despite NSW police search guidelines stating that an indication from a drug dog is not a sufficient reason for a strip search, officers told Becca they suspected she was carrying an illegal substance. She was told she could refuse to consent to the search, but that if she did her ticket would be confiscated and she’d be asked to leave the festival.

Feeling she had no choice, she was taken to a large transit van where a female officer first instructed her to lift her top while Becca could see a group of male officers through the uncovered windscreen of the van.

“She asked me to lift my top up, which I replied that I didn’t have a bra on, looking out at the [male officers]. She followed my gaze and looked around and said ‘just do it quickly’,” she said.

“I didn’t feel like I could say no at any point or that I could speak out because I didn’t want to offend them because they have this power to not let me go to this festival.”

She says she was then told to drop, squat and cough, before the officer knelt down and peering at her vaginal area, all issues which have previously been identified as being of questionable legality by the NSW police watchdog.

“I feel like at that point I just mentally clocked out,” she said.

“It was a really sort of out-of-body experience and felt very dehumanising. I was just my body and that’s it. Who I was, my emotions, everything, I just put a block on that and it was like a light in my brain was turned off. I really disconnected until I left and that’s when all the emotions came rushing in. It was really traumatising.”

In many ways, her story mirrors dozens of others that have come to light in the past year. Like many others, it highlights both a lack of understanding among frontline officers about their powers in relation to the controversial practice as well as what critics say is a lack of clarity in the legislation which guides its use.

Last year, the NSW law enforcement conduct commission held public hearings into the use of strip searches on minors at music festivals which uncovered significant breaches of strip-search laws by police. In one case a 16-year-old girl was left fearful and in tears after she was forced to strip naked and squat in front of a police officer who then “looked underneath” her at the Splendour in the Grass festival in 2018. In another, a 15-year-old boy accused police of telling him to “hold your dick and lift your balls up and show me your gooch” during a search.

In reports released earlier this month, the LECC found both of those searches, and a string of others, were illegal.

But to date, critics have been dissatisfied with the watchdog’s response. The LECC’s inquiry also uncovered broader issues with the legislation guiding the searches, but rather than calling for a broader overhaul of strip search polices it has thus far opted to push for more education for officers about the way they should be used.

By initiating plans for the class action, Lee said the claimants would push both for damages to be awarded to victims of illegal searches conducted by police, and broader changes to their use by police.

“There has been a lot of concentration on updating education and training materials which for us is just not enough,” Lee said.

“That’s part of the reason we’re pushing forward with the legal action, we want to see legislative change in this area.”

Read the full story here (The Guardian, 27 May 2020)