Festivalgoers launch class action against state of NSW alleging unlawful strip-searches by police

A statement of claim filed in the NSW Supreme Court is seeking damages and to ensure "this traumatising police practice becomes the exception, not the rule"

A class action has been filed against the state of New South Wales, accusing police of committing unlawful strip searches at music festivals in the state.

A statement of claim has been filed in the NSW Supreme Court by Redfern Legal Centre and Slater and Gordon Lawyers on behalf of people who were allegedly subjected to invasive, unlawful strip searches at festivals including Splendour in the Grass over the past six years.

Police are accused of carrying out “unlawful acts including assault, battery and false imprisonment” while searching festivalgoers for illicit substances. It’s also alleged that some people who were searched, including minors, were instructed by police to lift or remove items of clothing, lift their breasts or genitals, or strip naked and squat and cough so officers could inspect their body cavities.

According to a media release issued today, group members are seeking damages, aggravated damages and exemplary damages from the state, potentially in the tens of thousands of dollars for those who were subjected to “particularly invasive or distressing searches” by police.

The action is also aiming to drive the message to force command that officers “must be properly trained and disciplined to ensure abuses of this kind do not occur”.

When contacted for comment over email, a representative for NSW Police said: “As the matter is before the court, it would be inappropriate to comment at this time.”

In a statement, Samantha Lee, senior police accountability solicitor at Redfern Legal Centre, claimed their investigations had shown “invasive and unlawful police searches at NSW festivals have become routine, resulting in very few charges, but leaving thousands of young people and minors humiliated and severely traumatised”.

In addition to compensation for those they are representing in the class action, Lee said they were hoping the court process would result in findings that ensured “this traumatising police practice becomes the exception, not the rule”.

Lee added: “Time has shown that police policy changes and internal education programs will not prevent the overuse of this blunt and harmful policing tool. Ultimately, we need legislative change to ensure safer policing and real change. Until that time, we are looking to the courts to clarify in what circumstances strip searches are lawful.”

The class action’s lead plaintiff is Raya Meredith, who alleges she was strip-searched by police at Splendour in the Grass in 2018, aged 27. She claims that she was invasively strip-searched by police near the festival’s main entrance, in a makeshift search area that had inadequate privacy.

Meredith alleges that she was directed during the search to lift her breasts and show a police officer her genitals to prove the only item inserted in her body was a tampon. After being detained by police for 30 minutes, Meredith says, no drugs were found, and it was only then that she was permitted to reunite with friends.

“The whole experience was really degrading, scary and confusing,” says Meredith, who adds that since the alleged experience, she becomes scared every time she approaches security to enter a festival or gig, fearing that she will be invasively searched.

“What police did to me was wrong,” Meredith continued. “There are laws in place regarding when police can search a person, and how those searches are to be conducted, but they didn’t follow them with me.

“I don’t want what I went through to happen to anyone else. I’ve heard all sorts of stories about minors being searched and people being inappropriately searched – made to bend over and cough and things like that. These practices are unlawful, they need to stop and those responsible for allowing it to happen should be held to account.”

Last year, lawyers from S&G and RLC urged anyone who believed they were unlawfully searched at Splendour in the Grass between 2016 and 2019 to confidentially share their experiences with them and take part in a class action.

Speaking to NME at the time, RLC principal solicitor Alexis Goodstone said police had implemented strip searches at festivals like Splendour in the Grass in a “routine” fashion in recent years, not meeting the “high threshold” that warrants such a search.

“The law sets quite a strict test as to when it’s lawful for police to undertake [strip searches], and that is that police have to have a reasonable suspicion that you’ve got something on you that’s unlawful, like drugs, but also that the circumstances are serious and urgent, so as to make a strip search necessary,” she explained.

A representative for NSW Police told NME at the time that the test on whether a search had been conducted lawfully was “ultimately a matter for the Court”. They continued: “Police are required to suspect on reasonable grounds that the circumstances are serious and urgent when determining whether a strip search is necessary. When making that determination, police will consider all of the available information, including the risk of someone overdosing or dying.”

When provided with this statement, Goodstone responded: “I’d be surprised to find that all of the strip searches that have taken place at Splendour or at other music festivals were based on a reasonable suspicion that the person was at risk of serious harm because of ingesting drugs.”

Since S&G and RLC encouraged people to come forward with their experiences of potentially unlawful searches at Splendour, hundreds have registered for group proceedings. Slater and Gordon class actions associate Meg Lessing commented in a press statement today that they were also approached by people alleging similar conduct by police at other festivals in the state.

“Following further investigations, we have subsequently been able to expand the class to include people who were unlawfully searched by police at all NSW festivals, which shows how widespread these practices are,” Lessing said.

People who were searched by NSW Police at music festivals over the past six years (“including those asked to lift or remove clothing during a search, or who had police peer into their trousers or look under their tops”) are being encouraged to confidentially register for the class action here.

In recent years, police conduct when it comes to carrying out searches at music festivals has faced increasing scrutiny. In 2020, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission concluded a two-year inquiry into NSW Police strip search practices.

Among their findings were that a 16-year-old girl had been unlawfully searched by police at the festival in 2018. A police officer also admitted during the inquiry that, of the 19 searches he conducted at Splendour the same year, all of them could have been potentially unlawful.

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