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The Andrews government has settled for $5 million a class action brought on behalf of 3000 public housing tower residents who were forcibly shut inside their homes at the height of the pandemic’s second wave.
Legal documents posted to the Department of Health’s website last week explain that eligible residents can opt in to receive a portion of the settlement, opt out and file their own claim or object to the sum entirely. The settlement must still be approved by the Supreme Court.
Residents stuck in their homes during the July 2020 lockdown of nine Melbourne public housing towers.Credit: Penny Stephens
Lead plaintiffs Idris Hassan and Hawa Warsame commenced the class action against the state of Victoria in March 2021 over the hard lockdown of people in nine public housing towers in North Melbourne and Flemington between July 4 and July 18, 2020.
“Subject to the court approving the settlement on July 24, this is a very positive result in light of the hardship endured by the plaintiffs and other residents as well as visitors who suffered through the lockdown,” said lawyer Benedict Clemens, who represented the group.
Clemens said the plaintiffs sought damages for false imprisonment and assault, and disputed the state’s defence that the detention and the surrounding of the towers for several days by police officers was lawful.
“The residents come from a highly vulnerable, lower socio-economic group. Many reported delays in receiving food and essential medicines, and many experienced trauma, including refugees who relived trauma they had suffered overseas.”
The legal claim had alleged the state wrongly detained the plaintiffs and public housing tower residents, and wrongly threatened them with physical harm if they tried to leave. The government denies these claims.
Community leader Barry Berih, a resident of the Alfred Street tower in North Melbourne, said he was currently exploring legal options and was yet to decide whether to take up the settlement offer. He plans to run information sessions with other residents to discuss their options.
Berih believes an apology, which he has been advocating for since the hard lockdown, should have been part of the settlement offer.
“I just want an apology, nothing bigger than that,” he said on Monday. “It’s very disappointing.”
The public housing tower at 33 Alfred Street, North Melbourne was locked down for two weeks in July 2020.Credit: Chris Hopkins
A government spokesman said it had worked with public health experts on a response to protect lives and livelihoods following the outbreak of COVID.
“As a part of the overall public health response to a once-in-a-100-year pandemic, measures were necessary to protect all Victorians and save lives, especially the most vulnerable in our community – particularly given the slow roll-out of vaccines by the [then] Morrison government,” the spokesman said.
“As this matter is currently before the court, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass found in December 2020 that the government’s decision to lock down the tower without warning on July 4 violated tenants’ human rights, and has urged it to apologise.
The government hasn’t issued an apology and made the settlement offer without admitting the department had acted unlawfully. Hassan declined to comment.
The terms of the settlement mean adults will receive a portion of the settlement and children 16 and below will get half that. Visitors who were at the towers when they were locked down and were trapped for a few days will also be eligible for payment.
The public housing towers were locked down in a bid to stem the spread of COVID-19 as Melbourne teetered before its ultimately devastating second wave.
The lockdown lasted five days at eight of the nine towers but because of high infection rates, residents of 33 Alfred Street were subject to another nine days of isolation, which prompted Glass’ investigation.
Police and residents outside one of the North Melbourne towers in July 2020.Credit: Jason South
Gregor Husper, the principal lawyer at the Police Accountability Project, echoed the calls of residents for social workers, health workers and community groups to assist, instead of “heavy-handed police who kept those trusted people away”.
“The state might not have found itself in this situation if the police response hadn’t been so excessive and hostile,” Huspar said.
“This was a humanitarian and public health crisis, to which the police brought an entirely inappropriate and inflexible public order response.”
Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Annaliese van Diemen told Glass she was “quite terrified … that we would see within a week many hundreds of cases”, but that delaying a day would not have made “a hugely significant difference”.
The ombudsman’s investigation found that waiting a day would have allowed for preparations which would have mitigated the human rights impact on tenants.
The Department of Health declined to comment while the matter is subject to Supreme Court approval.
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