Class action investigation launched into potentially unlawful searches by NSW police at Splendour In The Grass

Those who were unlawfully searched by police at the festival between 2016 and 2019 could be entitled to compensation of up to "tens of thousands of dollars", according to Redfern Legal Centre and Slater and Gordon Lawyers

A class action investigation is being launched into potentially unlawful searches performed by NSW police officers at Splendour In The Grass from 2016 to 2019.

Redfern Legal Centre and Slater and Gordon Lawyers revealed today (November 16) that they believe those who were allegedly unlawfully searched by police at the festival between 2016 and 2019 could be eligible for “substantial compensation”, with those impacted by “serious breaches” being potentially entitled to tens of thousands of dollars.

Representatives for RLC and S&G said that some festivalgoers who were searched by police, some of whom were underage, were “allegedly directed to lift or remove items of clothing, strip naked and squat and cough, or lift their genitals so officers could visually inspect body cavities.”

In a statement, Slater and Gordon Senior Associate Dr Ebony Birchall said that they believe hundreds of people could have been unlawfully searched at the Byron Bay festival throughout the years in question.

“An unlawful police search is classified by law as an assault and gives rise to compensation,” Birchall said. “We believe that hundreds of people who were searched by police at Splendour may have been subject to unlawful searches and therefore may be entitled to compensation.”

RLC and S&G are encouraging anyone who believes they were unlawfully searched at the festival between 2016 and 2019 to confidentially come forward.

Splendour In The Grass co-founder Jessica Ducrou said in a statement that Splendour organisers had “no insight” into the search processes at their festivals.

“Splendour wishes to make clear that we had no insight into NSW Police search processes at our festivals,” Ducrou said in a comment included in a press release from RLC and S&G. “We do not support drug dog operations as a method to manage a broader societal challenge that extends well beyond the context of a music festival. We support our patrons who wish to come forward to call out and help stop unlawful conduct.”

In a statement to NME, a spokesperson for NSW Police said that “the NSW Police Force is aware of media reports from 18 months ago that a class action was planned. To this date, no class action has been filed with the courts.

“The test on whether a search was conducted lawfully is ultimately a matter for the Court. 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. The Law Enforcement Conduct Commission has acknowledged the significant improvements the NSWPF has made in the education, training and guidance to police in carrying out searches.

“The NSWPF has responded to LECC regarding adoption of the recommendations from the investigation. It is a matter for LECC to make public the conclusions of their report and the NSWPF response to the recommendations.”

Police officers and drug detection dogs walk amongst festival goers by an entrance to Splendour In The Grass 2019.
Police officers and drug detection dogs walk amongst festival goers by an entrance to Splendour In The Grass 2019. CREDIT: Matt Jelonek/Wire Image.

In their statement, RLC and S&G shared an account by someone under the alias Ruby, who described their experience being searched by police twice in a single day at Splendour in 2017.

Ruby said that they were searched in a tent after being instructed to by two officers with a drug detection dog, who did not allow Ruby’s partner to accompany and support them. Ruby claimed they had no drugs on them, and the female officer searching them reportedly spoke in a “condescending and patronising” manner, allegedly telling Ruby that “the process will be made easier if you tell me where you are hiding the drugs”.

Ruby, a diabetic, said that perhaps the dog had detected their insulin, but the officer said drug detection dogs are “highly trained” and that they were positive Ruby had drugs on them. Ruby also said that they felt “violated” when a male officer looked into the tent while they were naked, despite the female officer claiming no one was watching the search.

Once Ruby was free to go, they changed their clothes back at the campground as all of what they were wearing had been thrown onto the muddy ground by the officer. As they returned to the festival at 5pm that afternoon, they were allegedly grabbed from behind by a male police officer who instructed a drug detection dog to sit at their feet, presumably due to Ruby’s nerves.

As officers directed Ruby to be searched again, Ruby asked what the limit was on the number of searches one could have done on them per day, to which they were allegedly told “unlimited”. Ruby says they still had no drugs on them, hadn’t taken any and believed their clothing hadn’t come into contact with any either.

Redfern Legal Centre’s Principal Solicitor Alexis Goodstone said that these allegedly unlawful searches were a “systemic problem” that needs to be confronted.

In a statement, Goodstone said, “This ground-breaking class action will seek redress for the many people subjected to invasive and traumatic searches.

“We also hope this test case will pave the way for a series of cases focusing on other locations or music festivals, and importantly, help stop unlawful police searches in NSW.”

Searches by police and the use of drug detection dogs at festivals have been a particular concern for Australian advocacy groups over the past few years. In 2019, the Guardian reported that, according to data obtained by RLC, over 120 underage girls were searched by police in NSW between 2016 and late 2019. Some were as young as 12 years old.

That same year, a NSW police officer who conducted 19 searches at Splendour In The Grass in 2018 admitted that the searches may have been unlawful during questioning at the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission.

In May last year, the LECC found that four teenagers had been unlawfully searched at both Splendour In The Grass in 2018 and Lost City in 2019. In December 2020, the NSW Police watchdog released a 150-page report that found there was “grey area” in the force’s protocol when it came to police searches. The report also found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were disproportionately targeted, accounting for 18 per cent of all searches.