ABC 7.30 Report
The United Nations has delivered a scathing decision on the Victorian Government and its police force, saying it has breached the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) after failing to compensate a woman viciously bashed by police.
Corinna Horvath, from Somerville on Melbourne’s southern fringe, was beaten by officers from the local Hastings police station in 1996.
The officers broke down her door without a warrant, handcuffed her and beat her up to a dozen times, leaving her unconscious and with a broken nose pouring with clotted blood.
“My face was beaten to a pulp. My nose was broken – suspected broken jaw,” Ms Horvath told the ABC’s 7.30 program.
Her lawyer, Tamar Hopkins from the Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre, says the attack was outrageous.
“It’s absolutely disgraceful what happened to Corinna. She was beaten senseless by officers who had no reason to do what they were doing,” she said.
Ms Horvath was 21 at the time and had a testy relationship with local police.
The night before the assault she had been pulled over for a minor traffic violation and had driven her car home despite police deeming it not roadworthy.
She was charged with a string of offences which were later thrown out when it was revealed that the police who entered her home that night had lied and fabricated evidence.
She sued the police and the Victorian County Court awarded more than $300,000 to her and the other witnesses injured that night in her home.
Judge Roland Williams was damning in his description of the officers’ conduct, particularly Constable David Jenkin.
Jenkin in his conduct showed the most high-handed approach, accompanied by excessive and unnecessary violence, wrought out of motives of ill-will and a desire to get even.Judge Roland Williams
“Jenkin in his conduct showed the most high-handed approach, accompanied by excessive and unnecessary violence, wrought out of motives of ill-will and a desire to get even,” Judge Williams’s judgement said.
But the officers cried poor – one declared bankruptcy and the others said they were unable to pay.
The State of Victoria appealed the damages decision in the Court of Appeal and won on the basis that it was not vicariously liable for officers who acted outside the realm of their duties.
This exemption does not apply to any other class of public servant. Ms Horvath did not receive the damages.
“There was no good outcome for us,” Ms Horvath said.
“Not only did we get the money taken away from us, but the way I look at is, the State Government said: ‘You acted out of the scope of your duty and we will not cover you. Therefore, we will not pay for you’. But, therefore, where’s the assault charges?”
Ms Horvath’s lawyers took her case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) in 2008 and it has taken six years to reach its decision.
The UNHRC has found Australia has violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Victoria must pay compensation to Ms Horvath.
It says the state must review its legislation, tell the UN how it is going to remedy this situation and must “widely disseminate” their decision within 180 days.
“A state cannot elude its responsibility for violations of the covenant committed by its own agents,” the decision says.
UN decision ‘vindication’, says barrister
“It’s a vindication, I think, of the stance that we took that Victoria was a signatory of the covenant, that agreed to abide by its terms, and it wasn’t just something that applied to African countries or other countries and not us – it applied to us as well and we could do [well] to look in our own backyard,” Ms Horvath’s barrister, Dyson Hore-Lacy QC, told 7.30.
Four committee members went even further than the majority, finding that the state breached Article 7 of the ICCPR, which bans torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
“The facts as presented by [Corinna Horvath] and established by the County Court of Victoria reveal a gross form of ill-treatment,” the four committee members stated in their finding.
In December, Victorian law will change to provide that if a claimant against a police officer who acts wrongfully on the job is unlikely to ever recieve compensation having exhausted all avenues, the state must pay.
Ms Horvath’s lawyers say this will still be an expensive and lengthy two-step process.
It’s an extraordinary contradiction that the state would say that the officers were behaving with such wilful disregard, disrespect for a person, and yet, continue to employ them.Lawyer Tamar Hopkins
Ms Horvath’s lawyers maintain the UN decision is unequivocal and that the proposed law changes do not go far enough.
“We expect the Japanese to comply with the decision of the International Court of Justice on whaling,” Mr Hore-Lacy said.
“It would be very hypocritical for the state to say: ‘Oh no, we’re not going to abide by this decision because we don’t like it’.”
Ms Hopkins said none of the officers who beat Ms Horvath lost their jobs – in fact they were all promoted and two are still working for Victoria Police.
“It’s an extraordinary contradiction that the state would say that the officers were behaving with such wilful disregard, disrespect for a person, and yet, continue to employ them,” Ms Hopkins said.
The UN decision requires disciplinary proceedings against the police to be re-opened and says the state must appoint an impartial body to investigate human rights abuses – not, like in this case, leaving it to Victoria Police to deal with it internally.