Our role is to make sure that the exercise of state power is not only lawful and reasonable at scale, but that it is individually just – we want to see that everyone receives the right services and that everyone is treated fairly.
An influx of hundreds of complaints to the NSW Ombudsman have likened hotel quarantine to criminal detention facilities and flagged a lack of police oversight during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ombudsman tabled a special report to state parliament at the end of March, documenting 913 complaints made to the Ombudsman between 1 January 2020 and 31 January 2021 that specifically related to the NSW Government’s response to the pandemic.
More than 500 related to NSW’s police-managed hotel quarantine program. However, the Ombudsman’s limited jurisdiction meant it was legally unable to deal with complaints about police officers controlling or overseeing people in hotel quarantine. This was despite the Ombudsman having jurisdiction to receive complaints about other agencies within the program including NSW Heath, NSW Treasury and the Department of Communities and Justice.
The report notes that almost 20 per cent of complaints received were “excluded complaints” about conduct of NSW public authorities that legislation prevents the Ombudsman from investigating.
“NSW does not have a constitutional bill of rights or a human rights act. One of the few express statutory rights that people do have is the right to complain to the NSW Ombudsman if they believe the conduct of a public authority is unlawful, unreasonable, unjust or otherwise wrong,” Acting NSW Ombudsman Paul Miller wrote in his foreword to the report.
The report recommends designating a single oversight agency during times of crisis, which would have jurisdiction to act on all external complaints related to the crisis.
“Our role is to make sure that the exercise of state power is not only lawful and reasonable at scale, but that it is individually just – we want to see that everyone receives the right services and that everyone is treated fairly,” Miller said.
“One of the lessons of the current pandemic, however, is that the current oversight and complaint handling system will not necessarily be suited to a crisis of this nature and magnitude.”