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Scrutiny of new emergency laws essential to monitor any human rights impacts

As the Victorian Government implements new emergency laws in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s vital that any limitations on human rights resulting from the new measures are justifiable and subject to scrutiny, said Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton.

24 April 2020

Yesterday, the Parliament of Victoria passed the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Act 2020 which includes a wide-ranging package of reforms targeting justice and corrections, rental relief and financial support.

“The Victorian Government has acted decisively to safeguard public health since the early days of the pandemic, and many of the emergency measures just passed are necessary to protect the right to health and life of all Victorians, as well as ensuring key institutions and services can continue to function for the benefit of Victorians,” said Commissioner Hilton.

The Act includes important measures to support Victorians during these times of uncertainty, including support for people injured at work who are unable to return or find employment due to the impacts of their injury and COVID-19. For people in rental properties, the Act temporarily bans evictions and rent increases. The Act allows these emergency measures to operate for the next six months.

Alongside these positive measures, there are some other provisions, including changes to procedures in Victorian courts and tribunals and restrictions in prisons, that are likely to impact the human rights of Victorians, enshrined in Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.

“During a state of emergency, some limitations on human rights may be unavoidable – and these are not decisions we can take lightly. Any restriction on human rights must be necessary, justifiable, proportionate and time-bound,” said Commissioner Hilton.

Under the Charter, the Victorian Government must act consistently with human rights. Any new laws must be accompanied by a ‘statement of compatibility’ that shows how the law is consistent with the Charter.

The statement of compatibility the government has provided with the Act shows that it has given careful consideration to balancing human rights and any necessary limitations during this period,” said Commissioner Hilton. “This is a compelling example of the Charter in action, showing that it is possible to enact emergency measures while still ensuring human rights considerations are central to the law-making process.”

However, Commissioner Hilton said that the breadth of these powers and their likely impact requires close and independent oversight and has called for greater scrutiny of the legislation and the government’s overall response to COVID-19. “The government should establish an independent committee to scrutinise the response, that is informed by human rights expertise and can hear directly from the public. This is critical in maintaining public confidence and transparency,” Commissioner Hilton said.

In the months ahead, the Commission will also play a role in monitoring the human rights impacts of the laws and the effects of the laws and policies on those who are most vulnerable.

“The Charter has helped embed a strong human rights culture in Victoria, and that will remain as important as ever during this period,” said Commissioner Hilton. “We’ll be working closely with the government and public authorities to help them understand their obligations and balance any restriction on human rights with their obligations to protect public safety.”

Regular updates on the human rights implications of the state’s emergency laws will be available via a dedicated COVID-19 hub, launching next week on the Commission’s website.

Media contact

Peter Davies
Mobile: 0447 526 642
Email: peter.davies@veohrc.vic.gov.au

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The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as First Australians and recognises their culture, history, diversity and deep connection to the land.

We acknowledge that the Commission is on the land of the Kulin Nation and pay our respects to Elders past and present.