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The trouble with IBAC

The trouble with IBAC

By Merys Williams

Opinions Police 


It’s time for independent investigation of police misconduct complaints.

The Victorian parliament’s IBAC Committee report into external oversight of police corruption and misconduct is due by 30 June 2018. This is a crucial opportunity for advocates to convince parliament that Victoria needs a police complaints system that meets human rights standards.

Currently, Victoria Police and IBAC both have the power to investigate complaints of police misconduct. However, IBAC refers more than 90 per cent of complaints received back to Victoria Police for investigation.

As human beings, most of us feel inherently uncomfortable when any organisation, company, church or other body is responsible for investigating its own members. As lawyers, we are taught that the mere perception of a conflict of interest will undermine the public’s confidence in the integrity of the investigation.

Victoria, the first Australian state to have a human rights charter, is the only Australian state to have its police complaints system reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC). 1 It’s fair to say that we failed that review.

One of the shortcomings identified by the UNHRC was that Victoria Police did not interview Corinna Horvath (the complainant) or the relevant civilian witnesses, when investigating Ms Horvath’s complaint lodged in 1996 over her alleged bashing by police during a raid.

In 2016, an audit of Victoria Police’s handling of police misconduct complaints revealed that 34 per cent of witnesses were not contacted by investigating officers. Twenty years later, one of the police officers accused of assaulting Ms Horvath is facing criminal charges but the complaints system remains effectively unchanged.

An argument made in favour of the police investigating police model is that it enables Victoria Police to be aware of, and take responsibility for, poor behaviour by its officers. While appealing in theory, the reality has been that for decades this has not occurred. A 2015 IBAC report on police oversight revealed that around 5 per cent of members are responsible for more than 20 per cent of complaints. Further, where a complaint is investigated by police, only 9 per cent of complaints are substantiated; a rate lower than comparable jurisdictions. This figure drops to less than 4 per cent when the complaint relates to assault. Victoria Police made inappropriate determinations in 14 per cent of files reviewed.

In 2016, IBAC conducted a public examination of police misconduct at the Ballarat police station during which shocking CCTV footage was made public. This was a powerful demonstration of what an independent investigation can achieve. However, the reality is that IBAC is not properly structured to deal with the bulk of police complaints. It has been established as an anti-corruption body and for that reason secrecy is at the heart of its legislation. This sits in stark contrast to the human rights standard for these investigations which requires transparency. Further, IBAC is under-resourced to handle the full volume of police complaints, having the same number of investigators as its predecessor, the Office of Police Integrity, but now having the much wider ambit of investigating all corruption.2

Victoria, a state that prides itself as a human rights leader, now has an opportunity to fulfil that brief. I call on parliament to set up a new, properly resourced, independent, transparent complaints body that functions consistently with our human rights charter.

I encourage those wanting more information to read the submissions to the inquiry accessible on parliament’s website.

Merys Williams is a lawyer at Robinson Gill Lawyers.

1. Human Rights Committee, Views: Communication No 1885/2009, 110th sess, UN Doc CCPR/C/110/D/1885/2009 (27 March 2014) (Horvath v Australia).

2. Law Institute of Victoria, Community Consultation on IBAC, the Victorian Ombudsman and the Auditor-General (June 2016)


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