Claims against Immigration dept cost government $230k in legal fees, but no compensation paid

EXCLUSIVE: Documents obtained under freedom of information laws reveal the government is spending thousands dealing with pending compensation claims from asylum seekers and Immigration staff

Immigration minister Peter Dutton (right) with prime minister Malcolm Turnbull

File: Immigration Minister Peter Dutton (right) with prime minister Malcolm Turnbull Source: AAP

A backlog of 26 compensation claims from asylum seekers and the Immigration department’s own staff cost the government $230,000 in legal fees and “case management costs” last financial year, newly released documents reveal.

The data, obtained by the Australian Lawyers Alliance under freedom of information (FOI) laws and passed on to SBS News, reveal the Department of Finance was reviewing five compensation claims for wrongful detention and 21 claims for personal injury.

But by the end of the financial year, no money had actually been paid out in compensation to anyone, despite media reports to the contrary.

“Compensation had not been paid in any active claims that were included at the time of the FOI request,” a Finance spokesperson told SBS News, in response to questions clarifying the documents.

“The costs referred to in the documents that were provided relate to general case management costs, including legal fees.”

Some media on Friday reported thousands had been paid in compensation to victims, with the ABC reporting “more than 20 compensation cases … for wrongful imprisonment or personal injury have been paid out”.

But a footnote on the FOI documents said the dollar sums listed in the “Total Amounts Paid” column referred to the cost of the “management of the claims” through the 2016-17 financial year.

Screenshot from the Finance department documents
Source: SBS/Dept of Finance

The $230,000 works out to legal costs of nearly $9,000 per case for one financial year. It is not yet clear whether any of the 26 cases have been settled since July last year.

The Finance spokesperson said none of the department’s own resources had been “diverted” to manage the claims.

The legal fees may have been charged by an external law firm, or by the government's own office of the Solicitor General. 

Lawyers were expressing scepticism over the figures last week, saying actual compensation payouts would be much more expensive. 

Tom Ballantyne, from the law firm Maurice Blackburn, said there were still unanswered questions about how much the cases were costing the government. 

"It is still, I have to say, pretty confusing," Mr Ballantyne told SBS News. 

"I don’t think it gives a clear picture of the cost to the government."

Mr Ballantyne said a year's worth of legal fees from a private firm for 26 cases would normally be "much higher", and would normally be higher even if the work was done by the Solicitor General. 

None of the personal injury claims came from detainees held in the offshore centres on Manus Island or Nauru, but there were 11 claims from asylum seekers detained within Australia.

ALA lawyer Anna Talbot said those in offshore detention would have a hard time making a compensation claim, mostly because it would be difficult to gather evidence.

“Quite a clear barrier has been put in place between these people and the Australian courts,” Ms Talbot told SBS News. 

Screenshot from the Finance department documents
Source: SBS/Dept of Finance

Of the nine claims brought by Immigration department staff or contractors working for the department against their employer, seven were in Australia and two related to incidents in Papua New Guinea, presumably on Manus Island.

The 26 compensation cases do not involve any Manus Island asylum seekers and are separate from the successful $70 million class action taken by Manus detainees against the Australian government last year. 

Published 15 January 2018 at 8:10am, updated 15 January 2018 at 1:41pm
By James Elton-Pym