The Dan Andrews government has agreed to a $5 million settlement in a class action lawsuit involving 3000 public housing tower residents who were subjected to forced lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic's second wave.
Legal documents on the Department of Health's website reveal that eligible residents can choose to receive a share of the settlement, file their own claim, or object to the amount. The Supreme Court still needs to approve the settlement.
The class action, initiated by lead plaintiffs Idris Hassan and Hawa Warsame in March 2021, stemmed from the hard lockdown of nine public housing towers in North Melbourne and Flemington between July 4 and July 18, 2020. Benedict Clemens, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said that the settlement was a "very positive result" considering the hardships faced by the residents during the lockdown.
The lawsuit alleged that the state wrongly detained the plaintiffs and other public housing tower residents, and threatened them with physical harm if they attempted to leave. The government denies these allegations. Clemens stated that the plaintiffs sought damages for false imprisonment and assault, and argued that the state's defence – that the detention and police presence around the towers were lawful – was unfounded.
Community leader Barry Berih, a resident of the Alfred Street tower in North Melbourne, is still considering his legal options and has yet to decide whether to accept the settlement. Berih has been advocating for an apology, which he believes should have been included in the settlement offer, and plans to hold information sessions with fellow residents to discuss their options.
A government spokesperson emphasised that the lockdown measures were necessary to protect Victorians and save lives during the pandemic, but shifted blame to the "slow vaccine rollout" by the then Morrison government. As the matter is still before the court, the spokesperson refrained from commenting further.
In December 2020, Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass found that the government's decision to lock down the tower without warning violated tenants' human rights and recommended an apology. However, the government has yet to issue an apology and has offered the settlement without admitting any unlawful actions.
According to the settlement terms, adults will receive a portion of the payment, while children aged 16 and below will receive half of that amount. Visitors who were trapped in the towers during the lockdown are also eligible for payment.
The public housing towers were locked down in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 as Melbourne faced a devastating second wave. The lockdown lasted five days for eight of the nine towers, while residents of 33 Alfred Street experienced an additional nine days of isolation due to high infection rates, prompting Glass' investigation.
Gregor Husper, the principal lawyer at the Police Accountability Project, supported residents' calls for social workers, health workers, and community groups to assist instead of the "heavy-handed police who kept those trusted people away".
Husper criticised the police's excessive and hostile response to a humanitarian and public health crisis. The Department of Health declined to comment while the matter awaits Supreme Court approval.