Human Rights &
Deaths in Custody
Levitt Robinson has one of the leading human rights and pro bono programs in Australia, outmatching the programs of much larger firms with far greater resources.
We know that the practice of law is more than just a profession, and our lawyers are specially selected for their strong social consciences and their drive and desire to improve the world around them.
Our team includes leading experts on all aspects of human rights laws, and we pride ourselves on not only practising the law, but helping to shape it through our blog posts, policy papers, submissions to government, and other advocacy/lobbying.
We pursue human rights cases in State Administrative Tribunals, and State and Federal Courts, as well as in the Australian Human Rights Commission and other such bodies. Our cases have gone to the High Court of Australia and beyond, including to International Tribunals.
Common Law Rights and Civil Liberties;
Indigenous Rights and Land Title;
International Criminal Law;
International Human Rights Law;
Public International Law;
Racial, Sexual and
1. Wotton v State of Queensland
Residents of Palm Island sue for racist coverage of Palm Island Residents’ use
Palm Islanders intend to lodge a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission against Channel Nine and the Daily Mail seeking redress for “racist” and “vilifying” media reports. Palm Islanders claim that the coverage breached Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
The Daily Mail and Channel 9’s coverage was inaccurate, racist and implied Palm Islanders should not have the benefit of compensation.
"Palm Island recipients of compensation … were largely vilified and great offence was caused to them by virtue of the suggestion that they were not entitled to receive that money, that they were spending it irresponsibly."
Senior Partner, Stewart Levitt of Levitt Robinson Solicitors.
2. Denishar Woods
Denishar Woods was electrocuted in the garden of her state-owned home, almost two years after the electrical fault was brought to the Department of Community Housing’s attention. Her family is suing the Government and could be eligible for millions of dollars in compensation if the Department of Housing is found to have failed to provide them with safe and adequate housing.
The accident left Denishar Woods with severe brain injuries and unable to care for herself as she is wheelchair bound and effectively blind.
The Woods family was awarded a $1 million, staggered ex-gratia payment from the Western Australian Government to pay for her ongoing care, pending the outcome of civil litigation against state and non-state parties.
LR are representing the Woods family and expect to initiate compensation proceedings against the Western Australian Government and associated entities in the near future.
3. Patrick Cumaiyi v Northern Territory
A Northern Territory Indigenous man who served a two-year jail sentence for recklessly endangering the safety of a police aircraft is hoping to be compensated after lodging a complaint about the incident with the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Prior to take-off in Wadeye, eyewitnesses saw Mr Cumaiyi struck with a metal flashlight before being dragged headfirst onto the tarmac from the door of the aeroplane.
The official police report contradicts eyewitness accounts of police treatment of Cumaiyi on the tarmac in Wadeye. Instead, the official police report alleged that Cumaiyi jumped from a police van traveling at 50 miles, or about 80 kilometres, per hour the day after his arrest.
The police version of events was dismissed by two medical experts dismissed as unlikely given his injuries, and that Cumaiyi’s lawyer, Stewart Levitt called “implausible, counterintuitive and not witnessed by anyone.”
The case demonstrates the extent to which a racist, white, minority police force dominates the indigenous majority in regional Australia.
The facts of Cumaiyi’s case provided the impetus for the current class action of Wadeye vs Northern Territory. That action has been brought on behalf of the community of Wadeye for "systematic racial discrimination in contravention of the Racial Discrimination Act … in the provision of health services and access to legal rights and to the equal protection of the law".
Wadeye is the sixth most populace community in the Northern Territory, and the five larger communities, all majority nonindigenous, contain large hospitals and other significant medical infrastructure. Wadeye, conversely, has a 90% indigenous population, and only has a medical clinic that regularly does not have even a single doctor in attendance.
4. Julieka Dhu
Juleka Dhu, was a Yamatji woman who died in police custody in Port Hedland, 1,500km north of Perth, on 4 August 2014. Ms Dhu ended up in police custody at 5pm on 2 August, 2014 on a warrant of commitment for $3,622 in unpaid fines, whereupon she was told she would have to spend four days in the lockup of the South Hedland police station to clear her debt.
About 8pm on the first night, Dhu complained of terrible pain in her chest and requested to go to hospital. Prior to Ms Dhu’s third and final hospital visit, CCTV footage shows Dhu hitting her head after being “yanked” by a Police Officer. Like its predecessors, the new injury is ignored until Dhu is literally dragged to hospital where she dies of cardiac arrest.
Ms Dhu’s symptoms were dismissed as those of a “fake” and a “junkie”. The autopsy report revealed the cause of death to be an infection in a broken rib, an injury sustained more than than three months prior in an altercation with her partner, Dion Ruffin.
Coroner Ros Fogliani said Dhu’s medical care on her second presentation at hospital was “deficient” and that both police and hospital staff were influenced by preconceived notions about Aboriginal people.
Dhu was subjected to “unprofessional and inhumane” treatment by Western Australian police that was “well below the standards that should ordinarily be expected” before her death in custody in 2014.
Dhu’s death has become a symbol of the Aboriginal Lives Matter movement across Australia and has been raised by the Black Lives Matter movement in the US.
LR has been prosecuting a Human Rights Commission Complaint on behalf of the Family of Ms Dhu, which has been complicated by issues such as the need to obtain Administration Orders so that a family member can be appointed the representative of her Estate. It is hoped that the Human Rights Commission Complaint can be settled by way of a payment of compensation to Ms Dhu’s family.
5. One Mile Dam
A sacred site with deep cultural connections, One Mile Dam is one of about 40 town camps across the Northern Territory which historically served as refuges for Aboriginal people, who were barred under discriminatory laws from living in urban areas until the 1970s. But despite being home to Aboriginal people for thousands of years, residents fear they could soon be pushed out to make way for inner-city developments.
‘Central Darwin Area Plan’ is an attempt to ‘land grab’ the area for residential and open space development, a claim supported by the Government’s plan: “to work with leaseholders to voluntarily transfer Special Purpose Leases to Crown Leases to enable the diverse use of land”.
In 1978, One Mile Dam was leased to the Indigenous community in perpetuity, to “provide a permanent place for Aboriginal people to stay when they come to Darwin”.
LR has been attempting to establish a community association which can take over the running of the community and negotiate with the Territory Government as to its future.
6. Elijah Doughty
Man cleared of manslaughter of the 14-year-old in Kalgoorlie in August 2016 in favour of the lesser charge of causing death by dangerous driving.
A 56-year-old man was cleared of manslaughter and convicted instead of dangerous driving causing death for running over over 14-year-old Indigenous teenager, Elijah Doughty. Dangerous driving has a 25% reduction in max sentence and the man served just 19 months of his 3-year sentence.
Doughty was being chased by the man who believed he was riding a motorbike stolen from his house.
He told police in an interview that day that he had got “too close” to the motorbike in his 4WD but that he never intended to hit Elijah, adding that “in hindsight” his driving was unsafe.
He said he was “trying to catch up with a motorbike that I know, I think, is mine, and hoping that the rider would go into the bush and fall off”.
A Perth jury found him not guilty of the higher charge of manslaughter, and he received a 25% reduction in his sentence for earlier pleading guilty to the dangerous driving charge, igniting ignited racial tensions in the remote WA city, pushed along by racist anti-crime pages on Facebook.
At a protest against the man’s parole hearing , Elijah’s grandfather, Albert Doughty, said the sentence was “a slap on the wrist”.
The WA Supreme Court has ordered that no one name or identify the man responsible for Elijah’s Death.
“It sends the wrong message: you kill a black and you can get away with it,” he said.
Listen to Stewart Levitt hit out at WA culture, it’s “’unfair laws’, which fuel Indigenous injustice.”
LR has recently received orders from the WA Supreme Court which allows us to name and identify the man responsible for Elijah’s death for the purposes of serving him with documents to initiate a civil claim for wrongful death against him.
7. Trevor King
Regina King called the police when her husband Trevor King began acting erratically and speaking of suicide. Police were told the 39-year-old had a heart condition and had probably taken drugs before they jumped him as he left his Townsville home.
Both tragically and ironically, had Regina not called the police, her husband would have had a better chance of being alive today.
Levitt said Regina King and friends who witnessed the incident reported that police repeatedly told him he was not under arrest after spear-tackling him, pushing his face into the dirt and straddling his back. By the time he was put into the ambulance, Mr King had died.
“Subjected to the very rough treatment which has been described and the shock of it all, it is quite foreseeable that a man with a pre-existing heart condition would succumb.” King’s lawyer, Stewart Levitt.
“It appears by the time the police got him into the ambulance he was dead,” he said.
Levitt described it as an “eggshell skull” case and called for police to be better trained to deal with those people who are severely depressed or mentally impaired, as well as Indigenous.
LR expects that a Coronial Inquest will be held into this matter shortly and intends on representing the King family at that inquest.
8. Tane Chatfield
In September 2017, Tane Chatfield had been on remand in prison for years and was when his long-awaited trial was commenced. Both his family and cellmate, Darren Cutmore, said Mr Chatfield was in good spirits and feeling confident about his chances of acquittal.
Following Chatfield’s return to his cell after court, the inquest heard Tane Chatfield had experienced seizures and was taken to hospital.
He was returned to the correctional centre the next morning, but his hospital discharge papers were missing.
A prison nurse who treated him conceded that with more information (i.e. the discharge papers) she likely would not have sent him back to his cell alone.
Mr Chatfield was found unconscious in his cell just one hour later, dying two days later in hospital.
Corrective Services NSW said Chatfield had attempted suicide by hanging; a finding inconsistent with both his injuries, and his state of mind.
According to Manisha Chatfield, the deceased sister, it was the institutionalisation of Chatfield as a juvenile which led to his demise.
"He does a stupid thing as a juvenile and he gets locked up and he comes out angrier and angrier each time that he gets incarcerated," she said.
"Jail is supposed to be for rehabilitation but our men come out angrier because of how corrective services victimise them.”
LR are currently preparing to initiate a civil action on behalf of the Chatfield family against Justice Health for Tane’s wrongful death.