Cap on payments for prison abuse would erode government accountability and undermine justice system, advocates say

Human rights lawyers and Aboriginal justice groups have said the Northern Territories government’s new law setting a $15,300 cap on false imprisonment compensation will reduce government liability in prisons, and that it went against the government’s commitment to the Convention against Torture which Australia ratified in 2017.

The Personal Injury (Liabilities and Damages) Amendment Bill is designed to limit legal liability in the future, by setting a cap on damages for offenses committed against anyone in correctional facilities. Limit changes will only apply to new lawsuits and will not be backdated.

The ABC reported that the legislation will be debated this week and next week and would apply to false imprisonment, including solitary confinement against regulations, assault and battery, including the unlawful use of restraints like chains and balaclavas; and assault, including strip searches.

Human Rights Law Center director Nick Espie told the outlet that the proposal contradicted the government’s commitment to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture which Australia ratified in 2017.

“It goes against a commitment to fix a broken youth justice system that has seen children abused and traumatized by those whose job it was to protect them. The laws will have a huge impact on Indigenous people because of the disproportionate rates of Indigenous incarceration, particularly in the Northern Territory,” he said.

He said the Indigenous Justice Agreement included a commitment, accepted by the government, to treat Indigenous victims fairly, respectfully and without discrimination.

Cheryl Axelby, co-chair of advocacy and legal group Change the Record, said the cap was lower than what was required for inmates subjected to unfair treatment.

“Instead of taking urgent action to prevent mistreatment and abuse of children and young people in the criminal justice system, this bill is a cynical attempt by the Government of the Northern Territories to avoid the consequences when it did the wrong thing,” she said.

“These laws will have the opposite effect,” he said.

North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency lead solicitor David Woodruff said the bill was an attempt by the government to reduce the amount it had to pay, but would undermine oversight and accountability of the justice system.

“This policy is directly contrary to the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory,” Mr Woodruff said.

Acting NT Children’s Commissioner Nicole Hucks told the ABC that the proposed changes run counter to recent royal commissions focusing on children.

“I am concerned that this legislation essentially removes any practical right to compensation for children who have suffered abuse in detention, in contradiction to the findings and recommendations of recent royal commissions into child sexual abuse. children and the protection and detention of children in the Northern Territory,” Ms Hucks said.

Similarly, NT Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Sally Sievers told the Northwest Territories Newsshe was not consulted on the bill.

“It has been brought to our attention by groups concerned about its impact on people covered by the Anti-Discrimination Act 1992; those disproportionately affected will be youth, Indigenous peoples and people living with disabilities,” said Ms. Sievers.

Attorney General Selena Ubio told NT News that the department did not consult with its own Indigenous justice unit when crafting the amendment.

“The purpose of the ‘Offender Damages Scheme’ is to address community concerns about large payments of taxpayers’ funds to offenders for incidents that occurred while in custody,” Ms Uibo told parliament in March when introducing the bill.

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