In a landmark ruling, the High Court of Australia has found that the tear gas used against four teens held in an infamous Darwin youth detention centre in 2014 was, in fact, an unlawful act.
The 2014 incident at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre sparked mass outrage after the ABC’s Four Corners program aired it as part of a larger expose on the Northern Territory’s youth justice system, particular its treatment of Indigenous youths. That program subsequently sparked a Royal Commission into the Territory’s detention practices for young offenders.
In the incident, four teens aged between 15 and 17 at the time were sprayed with tear gas following a night of unrest. The tear gas was dispersed by guards from the nearby adult jail who were called in to deal with the situation. All four detainees were locked in their cells at the time the gas was deployed into a nearby enclosed area in a bid to subdue another detainee who had escaped from his cell.
Previously, the Northern Territory Supreme Court ruled that the use of the tear gas in the detention centre was legal and authorised. However legal representatives for the group of four appealed that decision to the High Court.
Today’s ruling, a majority one, found that the authorised use of the gas – which is considered a prohibited weapon – did not apply in youth detention centres. That ruling leaves the door open for the four men involved to claim damages. They have already been awarded limited damages over the use of other controversial restraints on the night in question such as leg shackles and spit-hoods. An image of one boy in those restraints sparked specific outrage and formed the basis of the Four Corners report.
Following the verdict, Senior Lawyer for the Human Rights Law Centre Shahleena Musk issued a stinging statement, asserting “This decision confirms what we already knew – that vulnerable children in Don Dale were abused. These kids should have been protected and looked after not tear gassed in confined spaces.”
“All children should be treated with dignity and respect. But now right across Australia, we know that children continue to be mistreated behind bars. Every single state and territory must change their laws and prohibit cruel and inhuman treatment. The NT Government must implement all of the recommendations from the Royal Commission. How we treat children today shapes our tomorrow.”
The HRLC also called on the NT Government to raise the age of legal responsibility from 10 years old to 14, and to immediately implement all recommendations made by the Royal Commission.