29 March 2022: Yoo-rrook Justice Commission-an important investigation into the disconnection and abuses suffered by our First Nations Victorians

In more recent years, we have started to make good progress in obtaining reasonable compensation for our Aboriginal clients who were made wards of state and abused in care. Whilst still too little too late, we are seeing much larger settlements regularly achieved for Aboriginal clients in the $500,000 to $1m range.

Unfortunately, we have a group of Aboriginal clients for whom we have not been able to achieve any justice. These are the Aboriginal kids in relation to whom there were no court orders, no formal supervision and who were just removed and placed randomly with white families because some white racist “do gooder” decided they would be better off being raised away from their families and culture whilst the parents were completely powerless to take any steps, despite their anguish and desperation at having had their kids removed. 

Despite our best efforts, we have not been able to find a legal entity that can be sued in many of these cases even though the Aboriginal Welfare Board (AWB) was involved, or at least aware, of many of the placements. The AWB was established under the Aborigine’s Act (1957). The objects of the Act were to promote “the moral, intellectual and physical welfare of Aborigines”, but still aspiring to Aborigines’ "assimilation in the general community.”  The new Aborigines Welfare Board had responsibility to exercise “general supervision over all matters affecting the welfare and interests of the Aborigines”. Further, the Board had significant power over place of residence, employment, mobility and the power to inflict penalties for improper behaviour. 

However, after the Aborigines Act 1957, the Board had no specific power in relation to Aboriginal children. Aboriginal children were removed under the Child Welfare Act 1954 and subsequent child welfare legislation and in the absence of formal orders we have not been able to establish a duty of care owed by the State in relation to these children who were informally removed.

This is one of the many reasons why the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission (the Commission) is so important to assist recognise the suffering of those children who were formally and informally removed and the many abuses suffered by them.

The letters patent which establish the Commission (Letters-Patent-Yoo-rrook-Justice-Commission_0.pdf (firstpeoplesrelations.vic.gov.au)) reference International Human Rights obligations, promote the advancement of treaty or treaties between our First Nations People and the State of Victoria and establish a Truth and Justice Commission which will examine the extent and impact of systemic injustice against First Nations people.

Importantly, the Commission will also consider appropriate redress which will hopefully go towards compensating some of our Aboriginal clients who have fallen through the cracks in terms of current avenues for justice through the common law and including the National Redress Scheme which requires a participating entity to be responsible for the “contact” with the alleged abuser, something that often cannot be shown in these informal racist arrangements that existed in years past.

Angela Sdrinis Legal has written to the Government with a view to ensuring that those of our Aboriginal clients who have signed releases in the past in which they waived all further claims against the State will not be left out. We will be writing again directly to the Commission about this important issue.

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