Annual Report 2023
This is the second annual report to members since Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) became an Incorporated Association in 2021.
Acknowledgment 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 the police and 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.
Why we exist
MALS exists because stronger activist legal support builds stronger and more resilient social movements. Stronger social movements mean a more robust and sustainable democracy, a more accountable and representative political system, and a more equitable and just society 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.
Statement on Impact
Our on-the ground presence
What a year! MALS fielded an unprecedented 30 Legal Observer Teams between July 2022 and June 2023, involving over 140 legal observer shifts. That’s almost three teams each month, monitoring police intervention at protest events.
Our ability to field more teams than ever is a testament to the hard work of our members, who have been organising, training, researching and observing; growing our reach and capacity as a collective.
The events that we observed were as broad and diverse as Victoria’s powerful and critically important social movements, ranging from a blockade at a Benalla weapons factory to climate rallies, Extinction Rebellion swarms and Disobedience street parties, school strikes, marches, lock-ons; from the annual Invasion Day march, to the first ever Trans Pride march, and the massive ‘Women Life Freedom’ marches, in solidarity with the global uprising against the Islamic Republic in Iran. We were at the mass forest walk-in at Wombat State Forest in defiance of Victoria’s new anti-protest laws and at all too many counter rallies to far-right attacks on Drag story-time and family focused LGBT+ events.
We choose to field teams where and when we think they will be most needed, and when activist groups have requested our presence. At so many critical protests, where activists have faced very real risks of police violence, abuse or discriminatory police conduct we have had legal observers present, assisting, monitoring, and gathering evidence.
Our growing deterrance impact
The ability of legal observers to deter police violence or misconduct with their presence alone is very minimal and is extremely difficult to measure. We constantly look for any indicators that might demonstrate that our presence is having any effect on police behaviour. This year we have noted an increasing number of indicators, which suggests our impact as a deterrent for police violence is growing.
We know that police are now briefed about our role as part of police operational planning prior to most protest events. Victoria Police now know that when they see MALS legal observers in pink vests, we can bring consequences. Individual police members at protests have come up to legal observers this past year and asked if we had any problems, some attempt to hide their ID badges as we walk past. Activists have reported to us that police change their behaviour when legal observers approach an interaction. Forward Commanders have checked in with us to see if we are satisfied with how the protest went. Victoria Police Senior Command is increasingly diligent in responding to our Statements of Concern and now know that a range of influential human rights agencies, Commissioners, Members of Parliament and accountability bodies will be asking questions based upon the evidence that we have gathered.
Augmenting and strengthening advocacy
Our capacity to gather evidence, feed into police accountability processes and to augment and strengthen human rights advocacy by our on-the-ground presence has substantially grown substantially this year.
Our Statement of Concern after the policing of the Posie Parker anti-Trans rally and counter-protests on Saturday, March 18, 2023, was a particularly important case study in impact. Our 4-page Statement on the policing of that set of protests was perhaps our most widely shared and responded to since we started 12 years ago. Its use to the wider legal and human rights advocacy sector as a reliable, independent, eye-witness account of the discriminatory nature of policing on that day was tangible. It enabled advocates from a wide range of agencies, commissions and positions in parliament to sharply focus their concerns, and clearly demonstrated the extraordinary value in having an organised human rights observer presence on the ground. The MALS statement was central to a joint communique to Victoria’s Attorney General signed by over 50 legal, community and human rights organisations.
MALS has continued to closely monitor the disparate policing of the rising transphobic campaign against many LGBTQI+ family orientated events throughout Victoria over 2023, including the police’s role in council risk assessments, which were noted as an influential factor in event cancelations.
We continue to monitor any and all use of OC spray at protests whilst the OC Spray Class Action progresses through the civil courts. Launched in September 2021 by Phi Finney McDonald and Inner Melbourne Legal Centre, this case alleges, as MALS has publicly stated, that Victoria Police’s use of capsicum spray against protesters at the 2019 International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) was unlawful, and argues the use of OC foam breaches the law when used as a coercive tool. Our strong relationship with a wide range of law firms, barristers and expert police accountability solicitors and critical evidence gathering creates a landscape for systemic accountability cases to grow.
In April 2023 MALS provided a 10 page submission to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture recommending a ban on the police use of explosive weapons such as stinger grenades and flash-bangs, a prohibition on the use of police horses as crowd control weapons and far stricter controls on the use of OC spray and kinetic projectile weapons. The submission was in response to a call by the Special Rapporteur, Dr. Alice Jill Edwards, for input on the nature, scope and regulation of the production and trade of law enforcement equipment and weapons and the relationship with torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, that was presented to the UN General Assembly in October 2023.
Over the past year MALS has continued to conduct court observations. The Victorian Coroners findings into death in custody of Aunt Veronica Marie Nelson and the case against the organisers of the 2021 Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests were both directly observed by MALS. Court observation serves to document, show solidarity and monitor trends in protestor prosecutions by police. On July 15, 2022 MALS sent a representative to the hearing at Melbourne’s Magistrates Court regarding Victoria police charging Black Lives Matter organisers Meriki Onus and Crystal McKinnon with breaching COVID lockdown directives when organising a BLM protest in 2020. Victoria police finally withdrew the charges after three years in February 2023.
Organisationally, MALS has received valuable capacity-building funds from the Department of Infrastructure, Stronger Communities Programme and the Department of Social Services Volunteer Grants Programme. These have allowed us to better support volunteer legal observers, refresh our equipment and upgrade our critical IT infrastructure. Generous donations have allowed us to maintain the invaluable one-day-per-week Coordinator position. We have worked long and hard on improving our governance, budgeting, planning and operational policies and practices with more to follow in 2024. We welcome Leo Bortolotto as our new Secretary after our previous secretary, Jaffa Withers took on the role of Treasurer.
As a 12 year old, grassroots and all-volunteer organisation we certainly put in the hard yards and the tireless, behind-the-scenes organisational work of so many amazing people is inspiring.
Whilst there remain any restrictions upon Victoria’s diverse, progressive social movements to fully enjoy their rights under the Victorian Charter and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), either through repressive anti-protest laws or by police behaviour or tactics, MALS will continue to monitor, scrutinise and speak up as strongly as we can.
MALS currently has 63 members (up from 20 in 2022) who are actively engaged in the organisation as trained legal observers, or as solicitors, legal researchers, writers or organisers.
Acknowledgment and Thanks
MALS would like to acknowledge all of the many volunteers who have contributed to MALS organising 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:
- Adam V Chernok, Niagara Lane Chambers
- Ali Besiroglu, Principal Lawyer, Robinson Gill
- Alice Drury, Acting Legal Director, Human Rights Law Centre
- Aoife Carli Hannan from the Commons Social Change Library
- Brenna McNeil for her work as MALS Coordinator from August 2022
- David Mejia-Canales, Human Rights Law Centre
- Gregor Husper from Police Accountability Project
- Hilary Knack, LGBTIQ Legal Program, Southside Justice
- Jaffa Withers for her work as Secretary from November 2021
- Jeremy King, Principal, Robinson Gill
- Jorden Brown for IT infrastructure support
- Jules D Cinque as acting Treasurer 2022
- Nadia Morales from Inner Melbourne Community Legal
- Nikita White, Amnesty International
- Dr Maria O’Sullivan, Monash University
- Shirin Sethna, Office of Adam Bandt MP, Federal Member for Melbourne
MALS wishes to thank the following organisations for their valuable in-kind support or direct assistance:
- Amnesty International – Victoria
- Black Spark Cultural Centre
- Commons Social Change Library
- Fitzroy Legal Service
- Human Rights Law Centre
- IMARC Legal Support Team
- Inner Melbourne Community Legal
- Legal Observers NSW
- Naarm Frontline Medics
- Phi Finney McDonald
- Police Accountability Project
- Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service
- Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission
- Victorian Law Foundation
- Zulip and Kandra Labs
In 2022-2023 MALS received funding from:
- Department of Infrastructure, (C’wealth) Stronger Communities Programme (SCP)
- Department of Social Services (C’wealth) Volunteer Grants Programme
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 2024 can be made here.
See also: Annual Report 2022
Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS)