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Queensland to Lock Minors in Adult Watch Houses

Brisbane City Watch House
Brisbane City Watch House

The Queensland State government has introduced new amendments enacted as emergency legislation, to introduce the unsettling practice of detaining children in adult prisons.

What is a Watch House?

Once an individual has been arrested and taken to the police station, they may be held in custody in the watch house.

Amnesty International have previously documented and reported on their findings of official government documents obtained through Right To Information applications on Brisbane City Watch House. Their findings uncovered numerous breaches of international standards, Queensland regulations, and the Queensland Police Operational Procedures Manual concerning the treatment of children as young as 10.

Despite being designed for short-term adult detention, the Brisbane facility held 89 children as of May 10, 2019, some for over a month. Overcrowding, insufficient facilities, and extended stays are among the issues highlighted.

These watch houses, designed for adults, have had a lot of heavy criticism for their unsuitability as places for housing children. 

Conditions in watch houses include: 

  • exposure of children to aggressive adult detainees
  • a lack of appropriate facilities for girls
  • lack of access to showers or clean clothes 
  • Unsuitable sleeping arrangements
  • utilising isolation as a form of punishment
  • failing to deliver proper healthcare and mental health support
  • insufficiency in granting access to education

Queensland Government’s Suspension of Human Rights Act Sparks Concerns and Questions

The proposed legislation, tabled by Police Minister Mark Ryan, garnered attention due to its detrimental impact on minors. Specifically, the legislation allows children, some as young as ten, to be placed in adult watch houses, instead of youth detention centres. 

To implement this change, the Queensland government intends to suspend the state’s Human Rights Act until December 2026. 

This isn’t the first time the Palaszczuk government faced criticism for overriding the Human Rights Act. Earlier this year it reintroduced breach of bail penalties for young offenders. 

The National Children’s Commissioner voiced deep concerns about the hasty nature of the legislation. Anne Hollonds pointed out that recent legislative changes to bail laws led to an overflow of children’s prisons, which has in turn escalated the need to detain more children in adult facilities. This trend is a cause for concern, signalling systemic issues within the justice system and raising questions about community safety.

Hollonds asserts that this action goes against the principles of the Queensland Human Rights Act and will not serve the intended purpose of enhancing community safety. 

Underlining the importance of international standards, Hollonds notes that the Convention on the Rights of the Child advocates detention as a last resort. It also says that a child in detention must be in a segregated area, away from adults.

On 24 August 2023, urgent amendments to the Youth Justice Act 1992 were passed by the Queensland Parliament.

These amendments, which commence on assent of the Child Protection (Offender Reporting and Offender Prohibition Order) and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2023, reflect and validate what has been the understood and established practice for the last 30 years.

The amendments have the following effect:

  • make lawful the longstanding practice of holding children in watchhouses until beds become available in youth detention centres
  • make that practice more transparent by setting out criteria to be taken into account when deciding the prioritisation and timing of transfers
  • provide a human rights declaration override declaration that applies to this decision making process until 31 December 2026
  • make a retrospective amendment to address past incidences of children being held in police custody in watchhouses when s.56(4) orders have not been made
  • provide a human rights override declaration for the establishment of youth detention centres until December 2026, in extraordinary circumstances
  • address drafting errors in relation to the transfer of detainees aged 18 or over to adult custody.

New Legal Hurdles for Unlawfully Detained Children

The Queensland government took the unprecedented step of retroactively shielding itself from potential litigation arising from what could be deemed as unlawful detention practices.

Premiers views on children in watch houses

During a recent appearance on ABC News Breakfast, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk shared insights, emphasising the importance of maintaining community safety through firm laws. Premier Palaszczuk explained that the design of these measures was to place minors in adult watch houses before their court appearances or their transfer to youth detention centres. According to her, this aligns with the expectations of the public for enhanced safety measures.

Addressing the concerns surrounding the legislative process, the Premier acknowledged that it’s not unusual for amendments to undergo parliamentary scrutiny and adjustments during the debate stage. She referred to this practice as “standard” and integral to refining the legislation for the best outcomes.

Queensland Human Rights Commissioner Voices Concern:

“There are farm animals with better legal protections in Queensland than children.”

Contrary to the perspective that the proposed laws merely formalise existing practices, Queensland Human Rights Commissioner Scott McDougall articulated a different viewpoint during his interview on ABC Radio Brisbane. He contested the notion that these laws are simply codifying a three-decade-long practice of holding children in watch houses. 

McDougall highlighted two distinct concerns. “There’s two issues, there’s the process for rushing laws and then there’s the impact of the laws themselves not just on the children but also on victims. And also on Queensland’s reputation as a modern democracy that actually values human rights and due process.”

O’Brien Criminal and Civil Solicitors’ principal solicitor gave an extensive interview to the Guardian on this issue.

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O’Brien Criminal & Civil Solicitors
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Sydney NSW 2000

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