Senate debates

Tuesday, 30 September 2014


Horvath, Ms Corinna

8:18 pm

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the news that on Friday, 19 September Victoria Police's Chief Commissioner, Ken Lay, finally responded to the case of Corinna Horvath.    Mr Lay wrote to Corinna to apologise for police actions taken against her in an illegal raid on her house 18 years ago.    On 9 March 1996, Corinna Horvath, who was 21 at the time, was assaulted in her own home. Eight police officers arrived at her Somerville home after a dispute about an un-roadworthy car. They kicked in her door, despite not having a warrant to enter the property. One of the officers held her down on the ground and repeatedly punched her in the face. These punches broke her nose, led to extensive facial bruising and a chipped tooth, and rendered her unconscious. She subsequently experienced anxiety, depression, loss of confidence, stress, interference with her relationship, poor memory and concentration, and a fear of the police.

After the assault Corinna made a complaint through the official police process. Soon after her complaint was lodged, local police laid 11 charges against Corinna.    I have since been advised by a barrister that practises regularly in this area that this is standard operating procedure for police when confronted by a complaint. Every charge laid by local police was subsequently thrown out of court. After waiting almost a year, the internal police investigation found that the forced entry allegation could not be substantiated; however, they did recommend an internal disciplinary charge only against one of the officers—a charge ultimately discontinued by the police themselves in mid-1998.

In June 1997, Corinna filed for damages against the State of Victoria and the individual police involved. In February 2001, County Court Judge Williams handed down his decision remarking that:

Overall it was a disgraceful and outrageous display of police force in a private house …

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. He awarded damages of $270,000, which was never paid due an appeal by the state and bankruptcy of the officers involved.

In 2008, after having failed to receive any compensation or have the police prosecuted, Corinna submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee that her human rights had been breached by the actions of the Victoria Police and the subsequent actions taken by the state of Victoria. This year the UN Human Rights Committee found that the state of Victoria failed to show that the proceedings undertaken by the internal review of the matter met the requirements of an effective remedy. Specifically the Human Rights Committee noted that the investigation conducted by the Victoria Police did not call Corinna or 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. The Human Rights Committee found that the state of Victoria does not have a statutory scheme that provides adequate compensation for human rights abuses and that this is incompatible with section 2 of the Human Rights covenant, of which we are a signatory. The committee noted that under the convention the State of Victoria must make changes to domestic laws and practices that are necessary to ensure their conformity with the covenant. In response to the finding of the Human Rights Committee, Ken Lay has finally acted on behalf of Victoria Police, and I welcome that. In his letter to Corinna he stated that:

I deeply regret what occurred and sincerely apologise for the injuries you suffered as a result.

He went on to say:

I have approved an ex-gratia payment ... as full and final payment to you by way of compensation and hope/ trust the payment, coupled with this apology, helps provide closure for you in relation to the events of 9 March 1996. I wish you all the best for the future.

However, Ken Lay was unwilling to take the step most important to Corinna—that is, for the police involved to face charges and be made to face up to their actions.

'It's not the end of it to me it's just opening a whole can of worms,' Corinna said when speaking to the media. 'I think he [the officer involved] needs to sit a disciplinary hearing where he has to tell the truth. A spokeswoman for Victoria Police said 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 had already been decided on the available evidence'. She went on to say:

The three officers involved were still serving and no further discipline was planned.

But, of course, this is not the point. The police involved do not need another internal inquiry; they need to be charged with criminal charges and face court. The charges that should be laid against these police are the offences identified by Judge Williams—those of unlawful arrest, false imprisonment, assault and malicious prosecution. A spokesman for Ms Horvath's lawyers at Flemington-Kensington Legal Centre welcomed Mr Lay's apology, but said it did not satisfy all of their concerns:

Incidents like those experienced by Corinna Horvath are still occurring and before the courts. … The state government should establish an independent body to investigate police misconduct complaints and a system for victims to access compensation for violations of human rights perpetrated by police personnel.

The Independent Broad Based Anti-corruption Commission, or IBAC, is presently the body responsible for investigating police complaints. IBAC itself in April this year asked the parliament of Victoria to increase its powers. In its report tabled in parliament it specifically asked for 'the extent to which IBAC must be reasonably satisfied before investigating complaints' to be reviewed. And IBAC is also seeking 'the ability of IBAC to conduct preliminary enquiries or investigations'.

Seventy-three per cent of IBAC's complaints are police related matters. In total around 3,500 complaints have been made against police to IBAC—a significant number of complaints. IBAC has a limited budget with fewer than 30 investigators. Their current role appears to merely log complaints and pass them onto the police internal department for review. In many cases these reviews are then forwarded to the same police station or region from where the police come from. This process is failing our state.

The coalition government in Victoria recently presented legislation to parliament to strengthen IBAC, which is unlikely to be passed before the next election and, in my opinion, does not go far enough. Victoria needs reforms of IBAC so it can independently investigate complaints against police and have the power to charge and prosecute their misconduct. Under its current powers, IBAC cannot even make a binding recommendation to the Victorian police force. Police can just ignore IBAC. An alternative to IBAC would be a separate, independent body to deal with police complaints. But what should be obvious to all is that police cannot investigate police, if we expect proper justice.

It took Corinna Horvath 18 years, a number of court cases and an appeal to the UN Human Rights Committee to get some justice. The apology and payment to Corinna Horvath by Ken Lay and the Victoria Police does not change the fact that Victoria Police are not subject to independent investigation. Clear rulings against police made by the independent judiciary are ignored and not acted upon. Time and time again complaints made against police by the public are thrown out by police internal investigations. Police internal reviews simply see these matters as internal disciplinary matters—not the criminal matters they really are.

The apology and payment of compensation to Corinna Horvath is welcome. However, the four police involved in the assault have never faced charges for their wrongdoing and no reform has been enacted in response to the UN committee's findings. I call on legislation to be presented to the Victorian parliament that provides for an independent body to investigate and prosecute cases of misconduct by police. And that the state government properly resources such a body so it can fund a team of investigators to get through the backlog of complaints against police that currently exist.

I acknowledge that policing can be a difficult and challenging role. That is why the state invests so heavily in training and professional development; it is why we pay our police well and provide supportive employment conditions; and it is why the police are granted additional powers to carry out their duties. But the power granted to police by the community must not be abused. Policing can, and must, be done with integrity. No-one in our state should be above the law. Police will continue to operate without the threat of real penalties for their actions until we have independent investigation of complaints made against them.