The lawyers leading the class action on behalf of hundreds of youth detainees at Banksia Hill Detention Centre say the parties to the action had little choice but to litigate to bring about reform to the justice system.
Dana and Stewart Levitt, the managing lawyer and senior counsel in the Banksia Hill class action, spoke at a publicforum in Perth on Friday at which Premier Mark McGowan was labelled dishonest by former Australian of the YearFiona Stanley and “seriously misleading” by the former president of the Perth Children’s Court.
The forum was held on the same day new reports emerged of more serious disturbances at Banksia Hill last week, following a riot on New Year’s Eve that left buildings torched.
The Banksia Hill class action was launched in the Federal Court in December following testimony from hundreds of former youth detainees about inhumane conditions and mistreatment at WA’s only youth detention facility. Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos from the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project, who worked over along period to collect the testimonies, were also present at the forum.
“Even a Royal Commission (would be) just a diversion, as far as I’m concerned,” said Stuart Levitt. “A RoyalCommission can only make recommendations whereas a court makes orders.”
The managing lawyer of the class action, Dana Levitt from Levitt Robinson Solicitors, said “Unfortunately, sometimes, the only way you can hold governments to account is by litigating”.
Another panelist, Denis Reynolds, President of the Perth Children’s Court from 2004 until 2018, said an independent inquiry was crucial.
“[Banksia Hill] is functioning in a degree of secrecy that is very unhealthy,” he told the forum. “We do need an independent inquiry to fully establish the truth of what’s happening in that place.”
Earlier, Mr Reynolds and others lashed WA Premier Mark McGowan for “misleading” rhetoric about children detained at Banksia Hill.
“The Premier is saying these are bad children behaving badly, ignoring all evidence that their treatment insideBanksia is causing the behaviour,” the former judge said.
“The issue at hand is the unlawful and inhumane treatment of children once they enter Banksia Hill and Casuarina.
“It’s the punitive regimes imposed on children that are unlawful. That is the issue.”
Dr Fiona Stanley, public health expert and patron of the Telethon Kids Institute, noted that research shows one third of children detained at Banksia have foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, while many remain untested and treated.
“Nearly 90% of the kids in Banksia have developmental problems that make it very hard for them to obey orders,”she said.
“If you put these kids in better environments, a nurturing environment they do OK.
“Not one child in Banksia at the moment has had an assessment, we found that out from a source last week.”
Dr Stanley said some of the children detained in Banksia Hill and Unit 18 at Casuarina “are not going to be OK”,even in the long term.
“Some of these children are going to be so damaged that they’re not going to have a normal life, and they couldhave,” she said.
Dr Stanley questioned McGowan’s responses to criticism of his government’s handling of the facility, after the former Australian of the Year was threatened with legal action by WA Corrective Services Minister Bill Johnston over an opinion piece she penned in November 2022.
“I’ve been called a liar by the Premier, I guess I could say the same about him,” she told the audience at the forum.
Stewart Levitt, who is a member of the Labor Party, said he felt the party had lost its way.
“I cannot believe the way that McGowan has been permitted by his caucus and by the members of the ALP in WA to hijack the Labor Party in the same way Trump has hijacked the Republican Party, to reject and overlook the policy platforms of the Labor Party,” he said.
WA Greens MP Brad Pettitt criticised the WA government’s “harsher and more punitive” approach after detailing for the forum his impressions of Banksia Hill during a visit.
“They were no place for a child,” he said.
“They were graffitied, they were dirty, they were extremely run down. There is no way a child would come out from that better than they went in.”
In response to questions from the National Indigenous Times, the WA government denied that a Royal Commission had been offered as an inducement to drop the class action and the Premier said his focus was on delivering tangible youth justice outcomes.
“My government announced more than $60 million in November for improvements at Banksia Hill,” the Premier said, citing $10 million to expand mental health services and support programs, $30.9 million boost to deliver infrastructure upgrades, and almost $22 million for a staged expansion of staffing at Banksia Hill.
“The new funding is on top of the additional $25.1 million allocated in the 2022-23 Budget for Banksia Hill – which included funding a new Crisis Care Unit and a new Aboriginal Services Unit,” Mr McGowan said.
“Alongside our $15 million investment into an on-country residential facility in the Kimberley, this brings our investment over the past 12 months into youth justice to more than $100 million.”
The Premier also listed investment in early intervention programs across the state.
“These are complex issues and there are no overnight fixes, but we’re getting on with tackling the problem – rather than just talking about it.”