Human rights and Victoria’s COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Act – May 2020
On 24 April 2020, the Victorian Parliament passed the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Act 2020, which introduced a wide-ranging package of temporary reforms as part of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of these measures are designed to safeguard public health and give key institutions and essential services greater flexibility so they can continue to operate during the pandemic, or effectively respond to the threat of COVID-19.
As required under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, the Victorian Government reported how the reforms are compatible with the rights protected by the Charter. The statement of compatibility tabled with the Bill explained how any restrictions on the human rights protected by the Charter are reasonable and justified.
During a state of emergency, some limitations on human rights may be unavoidable, but any restriction on human rights must be necessary, justifiable, proportionate and time-bound.
We’ve developed a register of rights that sets out the new provisions in the emergency laws and their effect, the human rights that are relevant and the government’s justification for any limitation of human rights. You can download this register below.
Impacts on justice and corrections
While the majority of the reforms within the Act are temporary, they are likely to impact the lives of many Victorians, in particular those navigating the justice system or currently in closed environments such as prisons or youth justice centres.
In addition to enabling judge-only trials, the reforms formalise restrictions that have been in place in Victorian prisons since April. These include a ban on visitors, a mandatory 14-day preventative quarantine for new prisoners and additional powers to isolate and lockdown prisoners to prevent the spread of COVID-19. New powers will enable children and young people in youth justice detention to also be isolated.
When assessing limitations on prisoners’ human rights, prison officials must pay particular mind to the impacts on vulnerable groups, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people with disability and mental health issues, and children and young people in detention.
Ensuring scrutiny of emergency powers
The Bill also introduces a legislative override provision that will enable the Victorian Government to amend justice legislation in response to COVID-19 without parliament sitting. The override of laws by the executive without parliamentary oversight is unprecedented and will require careful monitoring to ensure transparent and appropriate government decision-making.
To maintain public confidence as these new laws take effect, the Victorian Parliament’s Public Accounts and Estimates Committee will assess whether COVID-19 state-of-emergency measures are and continue to be necessary and proportionate.
This is an essential mechanism for ensuring temporary limitations do not result in any long-term erosion of Victorians’ human rights. The Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities has helped embed a strong human rights culture in Victoria, and that will remain as important as ever during this period.
Monitoring the government’s response to COVID-19
In the months ahead, the Commission will play a role in monitoring how government and public authorities manage the human rights impacts of the COVID-19 (Emergency Measures) Act 2020, the public health directions and the effects of the laws and policies on those who are most vulnerable.
Critically, this includes working with government and public authorities to help them understand their obligations and balance any restriction on human rights with their obligations to protect public safety, ensuring that any measures that restrict rights continue to be justified.
Share your experiences
To assist the Commission in monitoring the impact of the new laws in the community, members of the public are invited to contact the Commission online to share their concerns and experiences.