Strip search class action filed against state of NSW
Slater and Gordon and Redfern Legal Centre have filed proceedings in the Supreme Court of NSW against the state on behalf of people who were allegedly “invasively and unlawfully searched” by police at music festivals in recent years.
Last year, national plaintiff firm Slater and Gordon and Sydney-based CLC Redfern Legal Centre said they were investigating a class action over unlawful strip searches, including against children, dating back to 2015.
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Now, the firm and CLC have filed proceedings in the common law division of the Supreme Court of NSW against the state, alleging that police officers carried out “unlawful acts including assault, battery and false imprisonment” against festival goers, whilst searching them for illicit substances.
According to a joint statement from the firm and CLC, “group members also allege that some people who were searched — including minors — were directed by police to lift or remove items of clothing, lift their breasts and genitals, or strip naked and squat and cough so officers could visually inspect body cavities. Women were ordered to remove sanitary products so they too could be inspected”.
The strip searches that group members were subjected to, the statement of claim noted, were allegedly “conducted in contravention of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2022 (NSW).
Widespread practices must be addressed
Redfern Legal Centre senior police accountability solicitor Samantha Lee said: “Our investigations show that invasive and unlawful police searches at NSW festivals have become routine, resulting in very few charges, but leaving thousands of young people and minors humiliated and severely traumatised.
“With this class action, Redfern Legal Centre and Slater and Gordon are seeking compensation and redress for the significant numbers of people believed to have been unlawfully searched.”
The firm and CLC will also, Ms Lee went on, look to the courts to make findings that will ensure this “traumatising police practice becomes the exception, not the rule”.
“Time has shown that police policy changes and internal education programs will not prevent the overuse of this blunt and harmful policing tool. Ultimately, we need legislative change to ensure safer policing and real change.
“Until that time, we are looking to the courts to clarify in what circumstances strip searches are lawful,” she said.
Slater and Gordon class actions associate Meg Lessing added that hundreds of people had already registered for the group proceeding, since the firm and CLC announced that a class action was being investigated against police in relation to unlawful searches at Splendour in the Grass music festivals, dating back to 2016.
“We were also approached by people who reported having been invasively searched by police at other music festivals across NSW,” she said.
“Following further investigations, we have subsequently been able to expand the class to include people who were unlawfully searched by police at all NSW festivals, which shows how widespread these practices are.
“Strip searches are extraordinarily invasive, and a power that police should only use in serious and urgent circumstances.
“That seems to have been forgotten here by NSW Police.
“There have, at times, been high numbers of strip searches conducted by police at music festivals — at one festival increasing from dozens of strip searches one year to well over a hundred the next.”
‘Those responsible should be held to account’
Raya Meredith, who is the lead plaintiff, was allegedly strip-searched by police for 30 minutes at the Splendour in the Grass festival in 2018, an ordeal that found no drugs.
“There are laws in place regarding when police can search a person, and how those searches are to be conducted, but they didn’t follow them with me,” she said.
“I don’t want what I went through to happen to anyone else. I’ve heard all sorts of stories about minors being searched and people being inappropriately searched — made to bend over and cough and things like that. These practices are unlawful, they need to stop and those responsible for allowing it to happen should be held to account.”
Group members such as Ms Meredith are “voices of change”, Ms Lee said, who should be commended for their bravery.
Back in 2020, the NSW Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) released a report detailing that the “incidence of unlawful or inappropriate use of strip search powers, particularly for young people, has become increasingly evident to the commission in the course of its investigations and oversight”.
LECC, the firm and CLC said in its statement, specifically investigated the 2018 Splendour event, finding that, among other things, “NSW Police performed an unlawful strip search of a 16-year-old female, failed to train officers to uphold the laws that govern police searches, and failed to ensure the privacy and dignity of people during searches”.
Group members are seeking damages, aggravated damages, exemplary damages, costs and interest.
For those whose searches were “particularly invasive or distressing”, the firm and CLC wrote, damages could be in the order of tens of thousands of dollars.