The health crisis triggered by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing dedicated fight to save human lives should not provide a “blank cheque’’ to override the rights of individuals, according to Queensland’s Human Rights Commission (QHRC) chief.
QHRC Commissioner Scott McDougall today (Wednesday 9 December) said the rights of an individual–under Queensland’s Human Rights Act 2019–were not absolute and may be limited by restrictions that were reasonable and demonstrably justified during the spread of the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus.
However, he said the overarching duty to save lives by preventing contagion during a public health crisis or emergency was not a blank cheque to override individual human rights.
His comments came during the Human Rights are Essential forum–organised by Queensland Law Society (QLS) and Caxton Legal Centre (CLC)–on the eve of the United Nation’s International Human Rights Day and three weeks ahead of the first anniversary of the commencement of Queensland’s HRA laws on January 1, 2020.
The forum also saw the launch of a new chapter in the Queensland Law Handbook and Lawyers Practice Manual dedicated to human rights and co-authored by CLC President and QLS Human Rights and Public Law Committee Chair Dan Rogers and prominent barrister, human rights advocate, Paula Morreau and Caxton Human Rights practice lawyer Melody Valentine.
Mr McDougall, who addressed the forum ahead of former Queensland Court of Appeal President and current CLC patron Margaret McMurdo AC, said COVID-19 had proved as the best test of the state’s then newly minted human rights laws.
“As we know, the situation rapidly evolved (in response to COVID-19)… and almost overnight people were grappling with a host of incursions into their rights–starting with freedom of movement–during lockdown,’’ he said.
“People with disabilities were denied recognition and equality before the law… when their carers were not designated as essential workers… (and) more rights (were) foregone when residential service providers were authorised to lock the gates, doors and windows where people lived.
“People in aged care and prisons had visiting rights arrangements curtailed… (and) as the pandemic progressed people who arrived from interstate or overseas were placed in mandatory hotel quarantine for 14 days.
“Children from disadvantaged households who were unable to attend school remotely were denied their right to access education. Disturbingly… some children spent weeks in the Ipswich (police) watchhouse–not because of the lack of detention centre beds, but because of the public health directions.’’
Mr McDougall said the Queensland public had so far shown a level of trust in Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young and had, on most occasions, been prepared to “accept the science’’ to justify restrictions and impositions on people’s lives.
“Undoubtedly, this relationship of trust has underpinned compliance with restrictions that have served Queensland so well,’’ he said.
“Yet, as the pandemic rolls on, public confidence would clearly be improved if the evidence demonstrably justifying restrictions on rights was ventilated more openly.’’
Other dignitaries to attend the forum included Queensland Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman, Queensland District Court Chief Judge Brian Devereaux SC, Logan District Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation Chair “Aunty’’ Gwen Taylor, Queensland Public Advocate Mary Burgess, CLC CEO Cybele Koning, QLS President Luke Murphy, 2021 President-elect Elizabeth Shearer, CEO Rolf Moses and Legal Aid Queensland acting CEO Nicky Davies.