Thursday, 15 November 2012

Back from the Antipodes

Here's a quick update to say that I'm back from Australia – somewhat jet-lagged, it has to be said. I still feel as if I'm upside down. I can’t help but marvel at people who fly to the other side of the world for business trips of just a day or so, then return to the UK. Maybe their body clocks adjust by dint of being constantly on the move, but I'm still getting used to UK time.

I was in Australia for the national conference of the Australian Lawyers Alliance. This took place in a suburb of Adelaide called Glenelg. As I predicted, the weather was rather warmer than it is here.

I'm keeping this blog brief owing to the pile of work to which I've returned. At the conference – which I found hugely interesting and informative – I spoke about PI and litigation reform in the UK. However, the key thing that struck me about life in Australia, and the legal issues the country's lawyers have to deal with, boils down to one thing: immigration.

I recall reading that one in four of Australia's 21 million people were born overseas; to spend just a short time in the country is to see that it is a multicultural melting pot. However, Australia’s immigration policy is a topic of great controversy. The government exercises considerable control over who is allowed to enter the country through the visa system. Anyone who is not an Australian citizen must hold a valid visa to be lawfully in Australia.

This is reasonable enough, but ‘unlawful non-citizens' (as they are known) must be detained under the Migration Act until they are able to establish their Australian citizenship, or have evidence of being a lawful non-citizen (for example, they have a valid visa), or are granted a visa.

In speaking to Australian lawyers I discovered that there is considerable disquiet about the way in which people are detained, pursuant to one of the strictest immigration regimes in the world. One of the foremost firms with expertise in this area is Shine, whose offices span the country.

I met with various personnel from Shine, including two very interesting characters – former Lt Colonel Michael Mori, who represented Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks, and George Newhouse, an Australian Labor Party candidate in the 2007 election who now heads up Shine's social justice practice. Mori became a military judge in Hawaii but is now working for Shine in Melbourne, and, as with Newhouse, he has an excellent record in human rights cases.

In talking with Shine's lawyers I discovered that anyone who is reasonably believed to be an unlawful non-citizen must be detained by an Immigration Officer. Even worse, the detention can be indefinite and detainees have limited rights to challenge the need for and the conditions of their detention in a court. Worryingly, it seems that detention is the norm for those without a valid visa, rather than something exceptional. This cannot but raise serious concerns from a human rights perspective.

This is a bird's eye view of a serious problem, but it has parallels with the points I have regularly made about reform of the PI sector in the UK. What is required in Britain, as the changes recommended by the Jackson review come yet closer to implementation, clearly applies to Australia, too – namely a holistic assessment of the overall system which is flexible enough to take into account the nuances of individual cases. The aim must, at all times, be to put a premium on justice being seen to be done – and actually being done.

My visit to Australia revealed a wonderful country with a huge amount going for it, but, when it comes to its immigration policy and practice, there is undoubtedly work to be done.

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