Annual Report 2022
This forms the first annual report to members since Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) became an Incorporated Association and our new constitution was approved by members on 11 November 2021.
Acknowledgement of Country
MALS acknowledges and pays respect to Country and Elders of First Peoples wherever we work across the lands now known as Victoria. We acknowledge that police and the legal system in this country remains a core component of colonisation which continues to disproportionately target and impact First Peoples. All activists in Australia today owe a huge debt to Aboriginal activists throughout our history who fought for basic human rights, social, legal and political change.
Statement on Impact
MALS has continued to provide unique, specialised and targeted legal and human rights information, resources, training and other forms of direct support to a wide range of diverse, progressive social movements in Victoria.
The presence of MALS Legal Observer Teams at protest events continues to provide a level of reassurance to organisers and participants as well as vital and in-depth scrutiny of the myriad ways police encroach upon basic civil and political rights.
Our direct, on-the-ground observations, as well as close engagement with frontline activist groups and movement organisers, has contributed to and strengthened wider human rights advocacy over the past 12 months. Our Statements of Concern (SoC) alert an active list of high-level advocacy contacts whenever there is a serious and clear infringement of human rights. They both inform and strengthen collective human rights advocacy and are a critical function of our human rights observation work.
Outcomes resulting from our work can take years. One case in point is the role MALS has played in supporting the class action against Victoria Police’s misuse of OC (Capsicum) spray by Phi Finney McDonald and the Police Accountability Project on behalf of activists who took part in protests against the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) in October 2019. MALS has helped collate and provide valuable evidence for the case, which was filed in the Victorian Supreme Court in September 2022. We hope to report on the outcomes of that case in the years ahead.
MALS is also continuing to pursue Freedom of Information Act requests from Victoria Police regarding its Evidence Gathering Teams, which frequently record people attending protests. Our requests are aimed at gaining a deeper understanding of the objectives and operations of these teams, particularly how they use the footage they obtain at actions and public gatherings. Despite unprecedented delays (which have been the subject of criticism from the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner) we have received some documents. However, some have been withheld and others heavily redacted, which we are disputing through the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. We will continue to analyse the documents we do receive and share our reflections on them in the year ahead.
Links and collaborations with many legal and human rights organisations have grown stronger over the past 12 months as coalitions of concern have grown around the expansion of anti-protest legislation across the country. The challenge ahead is to move beyond joint letters toward strategic advocacy that sees the repeal of regressive legislation and protects protest rights in the long term.
MALS supported many activist groups throughout the COVID lockdowns and provided valuable reassurance as public gathering restrictions eased over the past 12 months.
We have also provided a range of behind-the-scenes support, legal and human rights advice directly to movement groups, and published a range of research, analysis and commentary on many critical issues faced by activist groups in Victoria.
Through trainings, inductions, and regular meetings, MALS has maintained a sizable and highly skilled volunteer base, and has been joined by some amazingly experienced and dedicated legal and human rights advocates.
Report on Activities from 1 July 2021 to 30 June 2022
Activities, events, publications and projects over the past 12 month period (in reverse chronological order) have included:
Public Statement: Policing of Climate Protests
On 22 June 2022, MALS joined over 40 civil society organisations throughout Australia expressing alarm at the pre-emptive policing of protests by Blockade Australia, with NSW police conducting covert surveillance and a raid on climate activists north of Sydney on Sunday 19 June. MALS monitored the policing in NSW closely and worked with counterparts in NSW to analyse the significant human rights impacts of this sort of policing operations. The full statement can be read here.
Media: Surveillance of activists
MALS commented on the dangers posed by the increasing surveillance of activists in a Crikey article in June 2022.
Legal Observer Team: #CeaseFire Rally and March
On 18 June 2022, MALS fielded a large Legal Observer Team at the Melbourne #Ceasefire National Day of Action rally and march that was held around the country in solidarity with the calls for the Yuendumu community to disarm police after the shooting death of Kumanjayi Walker.
Publication: Criminalising protest is bad for democracy
In June 2022, MALS joined an array of civil society, legal and human rights organisations in condemning the Victorian Government’s introduction of the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022 into parliament. MALS said in a statement that the laws are “entirely unnecessary, undemocratic and undermine critical civil and political rights”. MALS worked within a network of environmental and human rights organisations in an attempt to dissuade parliament from passing such dangerous laws. The law was passed in August 2022.
Briefing with Victorian Government regarding Anti-Forest Protest Bill Joint Letter
In June 2022, MALS attended a briefing by the Minister of Agriculture’s Office, led by Senior Agriculture Advisor, Tim Cooke, and the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions. In attendance were representatives of the 17 civil society actors and organisations who signed the letter above ‘Dangerous changes to forest protest laws’ calling for the withdrawal of the bill. Meeting served the purpose of informing civil society the governments position and rationale.
Presentation: What is this thing called Legal Observing?
At Law Week 2022-On 19 May 2022 we held an online seminar as part of Law Week activities talking about the history, role and importance of third-party citizen legal observing in protecting our civil and political rights.
Statement of Concern: Unnecessary use of handcuffs
On 4 April 2022 MALS released a Statement of Concern (SoC) about the increasing normalisation of the use of handcuffs on protesters and other people subject to arrest. The SoC was distributed to legal, human rights and accountability bodies and made many recommendations: that Victoria Police immediately cease characterising the use of handcuffs as ‘standard procedure’ during arrests; update their Use of Force and Operational Safety and Tactics Training (OSTT), and; update the Victoria Police Manual Guidelines (VPMG) and associated OST training to specifically prohibit the use of handcuffs or other restraints in situations when a person subject to arrest is non-resisting.
Legal Observer Team: Mobil Terminal Yarraville blockade
On 2 April 2022 MALS fielded a small Legal Observer Team at a blockade of the Mobil Terminal in Yarraville organised by the Victorian chapter of the global climate group, Extinction Rebellion. Observers noted the unnecessary use of handcuffs on activists who were arrested at the protest and released a Statement of Concern regarding the issue.
Covid Policing Report
The final report by the COVID policing coalition was released in March 2022 by the Police Accountability Project on behalf of the the police monitoring project. MALS was an instrumental part of the national covidpolicing.org.au project, which collated people’s interactions with police during COVID-19 pandemic from April to August 2020. The final report analyses 90 incident reports submitted by individuals of their COVID-19 policing experiences that were received from all states and territories apart from the ACT. Almost all the reports concerned complaints about police behaviour. The report is available here (PDF).
Legal Observer Team: School Strike for Climate
MALS met with and provided pre-event legal support to organisers, and fielded a Legal Observer Team at the School Strike for Climate rally and march on Saturday 25 March 2022.
Legal Observer Team: Rally for Public Health and Safety
On Saturday 19 March 2022, MALS fielded a Legal Observer Team at the Rally for Public Health and Safety at the State Library.
Induction & Information Night
On Thursday 24 February 2022, MALS ran an information session for new members and people interested in getting involved with the organisation. The night covered MALS’ history, operating principles, and our various research, fundraising, writing and legal observer working areas.
Case study: Two years of activist legal solidarity
In late December 2021 MALS published a case study of the BLOCKADE IMARC 2019 Arrestee Support Team that tracked the group’s work supporting the 107 people arrested and injured at the IMARC blockade in 2019 through years of subsequent court cases. It was a superb example of strong movement-based activist legal support with lots of lessons and insights for other groups.
Legal Support: Vigil at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre
MALS arranged for on-call legal support for organisers of a vigil by the family and friends of a woman who had died at Melbourne’s maximum-security women’s prison, Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC) on 10 December 2021. The vigil remembered the four women and one baby who died in custody at the DPFC in the past four years.
Legal Observer Team: Campaign Against Racism & Fascism (CARF) Rally and March
On Saturday 4 December 2021 MALS fielded a Legal Observer Team to monitor policing of this march, which wound around the streets of Carlton to end up at the Park Hotel.
Legal Observer Team: National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) rally and speakout
On 27 November 2021 MALS fielded a small Legal Observer Team at this NTEU event held at Melbourne University.
Global Warning: The threat to climate defenders in Australia
MALS contributed to and was quoted in this report produced by the Human Rights Law Centre, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, and the Environmental Defenders Office, which maps the alarming trend that sees climate defenders increasingly being targeted and suppressed by Australian governments. The report was released on 25 November 2021 and available here.
Legal Observer Training
Over the weekend of 20-21 November 2021, we held a two-part online training for new volunteer legal observers.
Legal Observer Team: Campaign against Racism & Facism (CARF) Rally and March
On Saturday 20 November MALS fielded a Legal Observer Team to monitor policing of this march.
Legal Observer Team: Park Hotel protests
On 23 October 2021, as COVID restrictions began to ease in Victoria, MALS fielded a Legal Observation Team at a protest by the Refugee Action Collective Victoria outside Park Hotel in Carlton to monitor how police were going to enforce the new Chief Health Officer (CHO) directions at that point.
Pubic Report: Policing of the Anti-Lockdown Movement
On 17 October 2021 MALS published a comprehensive analysis of concerns arising from the policing of protests in Melbourne in September 2021. MALS used a combination of direct on-the-ground observation, monitoring of multiple livestreams, analysis of video and media reports, and the use of trusted third-party eye-witness accounts to assess the policing of the events. MALS also worked to verify reports, images and footage where their origin was unconfirmed, and sought to correct misinformation about certain images or footage that had been circulated on social media. The report was widely shared online and extensively referenced in the months afterwards. The report is available here.
Media: The right to protest in a pandemic — does it exist?
MALS contributed to this 3 October 2021 Age article discussing the right to protest under pandemic health restrictions.
Discussion: Identify and Disrupt Laws, Surveillance, and Activism
On 28 September 2021, MALS hosted an online discussion on the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Act 2020, which became law on 3 September 2021 and gave broad powers for federal police and intelligence agencies to spy on, disrupt, and modify communications. Speakers included lawyer and human rights advocate Angus Murray, Lucie Krahulcova from Digital Rights Watch, and Sam de Silva from the Oxen Privacy Tech Foundation. The forum discussed how the bill works, how it may interface with activists and activist groups, as well as some potential ways to think about assessing the increased digital security risks for activist work.
In September 2021, MALS expressed concern after a video of a man being thrown to the ground by a police officer at Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station and police’s use of force to quell anti-lockdown protests. Read the Guardian article here.
Know Your Rights Workshop
As part of Victorian Law Week, MALS ran an online Know your Rights workshop on 12 September 2021.
Digital Security Workshop
On 5 September 2021, 16 people attended an online digital security workshop for activists run by MALS digital security activist, Jordan Brown.
Publication: Identify and Disrupt
On 26 August 2021, MALS published research on the new Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Act 2020, which gave the Australian Federal Police (AFP), the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) and, by extension, the Australian Signals Directorate, the power to spy domestically. The article is available here.
Statement of Concern: Police use of projectile weapons
On 22 August 2021, MALS published a statement of concern regarding use of projectile weapons by Victoria Police during “anti-lock down protests” at various locations in Melbourne’s central business district on the afternoon of Saturday, 21 August, 2021. See here.
Publication: Impact of New Regulations on Charities
On 4 August 2021 MALS published research and analysis of new regulations announced by the then Federal Coalition government which widened the scope for the charity regulator, Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), to investigate and de-register a charity. The article is available here.
During August 2021 MALS launched the #AugustforActivism fundraising and community education campaign promoting international human rights to protest and highlighting the range of activist information and resources produced by MALS.
Legal Observer Team: Death in Custody Inquest
MALS had legal observers present at the Victorian Coroners Court on 4 July, 2021 during the Coronial Inquest into the death of Raymond Noel Thomas after concerns were raised about the intimidatory behaviour of uniformed Victoria Police the day prior. The statement by the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service about the incident that prompted our presence is here.
MALS is an independent group of lawyers, barristers and human rights advocates. We train and field Legal Observer Teams at protest events, monitor and report on public order policing, provide training and advice to activist groups on legal support structures, and develop legal resources for protest movements.
We believe community legal support builds stronger and more resilient social movements, which means a more robust and sustainable democracy, a more equitable and just society, and a more accountable and representative political system for everyone.
The objectives of MALS are to:
- support activists in defending their own civil and political rights
- help maintain an open political space for protest in Victoria
- train and field Legal Observer Teams
- monitor and report on public order policing
- provide training and advice on legal rights, police powers, and activist legal support structures
- develop and distribute legal resources for protest movements
- maintain collaborative links with community legal centres, law firms and local, national and international human rights agencies.
MALS was formed in 2011 as an volunteer association. In 2021, members made the decision to incorporate in order to consolidate the organisation’s form and structure and build towards a larger and sustainable community legal organisation.
MALS currently has 20 members. An additional 74 volunteers are actively engaged in the organisation as trained Legal Observers.
Acknowledgement and thanks
MALS would like to acknowledge all of the many volunteers who make up the Organising Committee, as well as the all those who coordinate or have taken part in Legal Observer Teams over the past 12 months.
In particular MALS would like to thank:
- Jeremy King and all at Robinson Gill for their generous donation
- Jaffa Withers for her work drafting the MALS Constitution and facilitating the incorporation process
- Jordan Brown for his work as Coordinator from February 2021 to February 2022
- Brenna McNeil for her work as Coordinator from August 2022
- Nadia Morales from Inner Melbourne Community Legal
- Jules D Cinque as acting Treasurer
- Jen Keene-McCann
- Angus Murray
- Lucie Krahulcova from Digital Rights Watch
- Sam de Silva from the Oxen Privacy Tech Foundation
- Dr Maria O’Sullivan, Monash University
MALS wishes to thank the following organisations for their valuable in-kind support and direct assistance:
- Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service
- Victorian Law Foundation
- Police Accountability Project
- Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre
- Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission
- Inner Melbourne Community Legal
- Liberty Victoria
- Fitzroy Legal Service
- Amnesty International – Victoria
- Commons Social Change Library
- Phi Finney McDonald
- Human Rights Law Centre
- Digital Rights Watch
- Legal Observers NSW
Finally, MALS wishes to thank all those who have generously donated to our work over the past 12 months.
Donations to support our work into 2023 can be made here.