By Lexi Lachal

This week marked the beginning of the Manus Island Class Action in the Supreme Court of Victoria. The case is huge, both in scale and impact. But how does it work? Who is suing who? And what are the potential outcomes? We’ve got some answers:

How does a class action work?

A class action is a case brought by one person (the lead plaintiff) on their own behalf and also on behalf of a group of people (group members) who have similar claims against a defendant. All group members are bound by any judgment or settlement entered into.

Who are the parties in the case?

This action is brought by lead plaintiff Mr Majid Karami Kamasaee, a man from Iran who spent 11 months at the Manus Island Detention Centre and now lives in community detention in Melbourne. His claims are against the Commonwealth of Australia and its sub-contractors G4S and Broadspectrum (the companies that managed the Manus Island Detention Centre during the relevant period). There are a further 1,905 group members —the majority of people who have been detained on Manus Island since 2012.

What is the plaintiffs’ case?

The plaintiffs’  action alleges that the Government and its sub-contractors were negligent in providing:

  • food and water;
  • accommodation;
  • healthcare services; and
  • security

to people held in the Manus Island Detention Centre between 21 November 2012 and 19 December 2014, and that as a result these people suffered physical and psychological injuries.

There is also another group of people who claim that the defendants falsely imprisoned them at the Centre between 21 November 2012 and 12 May 2016. This claim is based on the PNG Supreme Court’s decision last year that the centre was unlawful under the PNG Constitution.

To be successful against the Government, the plaintiffs will need to establish that the Commonwealth has effective control of the detention centre and therefore owes a duty of care to protect the people being detained there from foreseeable harm. A ruling in the plaintiffs’ favour on this issue would have broad-reaching ramifications for Government accountability offshore.

What are the potential outcomes?

The remedies sought in this case are declarations and an award of damages (compensation). Because of the types of claims made, it is not open for the Court to make findings about the legality of offshore detention. However, if the claim is successful, it could establish legal principles about Australia’s obligations to those people it holds in detention — this would be significant.

This case will also be a thorough, public examination of the conditions at the Manus Island Detention Centre and the experiences of the people detained there. While some details  have already been made public through the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry and Forgotten Children report on Nauru, the Moss Review and now a Senate inquiry, the Government still has a lot to hide and Court orders are not easy to shy away from.

This case therefore represents a unique chance for Australians to better understand what is happening in our name in offshore detention centres. As outlined in our Operation Secret Borders report last year, the secrecy surrounding these centres is harmful, both to the people in our care and to our democracy.

This case will no doubt shine on light on some dark corners of our country’s policies; what we do next is crucial.

The case is back in Court on 7 June and you can watch the live stream of it here.