The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) was launched in July 1982. The organisation had just four staff, headed by Peter Cashman.
Over the ensuing years, PIAC staff and board, volunteers and associates, student placements and pro bono supporters have worked together to pioneer public interest advocacy in Australia. PIAC has provided a voice for the vulnerable, been at the forefront of improving access to justice, found solutions to complex social problems and tackled systemic disadvantage.
PIAC has played a leading role in responding to homelessness and addressing the legal problems faced by people who are homeless.
PIAC’s Homeless Persons’ Legal Service was established in 2004. It now supervises and co-ordinates 450 pro bono lawyers from leading law firms to provide legal assistance in 15 locations across Sydney and in Newcastle. PIAC also convenes Streetcare, a group comprised of people with lived experience in homelessness, to provide a critical consumer voice in the development of policy and law reform.
A good example of PIAC’s strategic approach is the creation of the Work and Development Order (WDO) scheme. Through PIAC’s work with homeless people, we were aware that the fines system caused injustice to already disadvantaged people. PIAC was able to generate a systemic solution – WDOs – that allows fines to be ‘paid off’ through volunteer work as well as by participating in approved treatment for a mental illness or participating in a vocational course. This solution was refined through PIAC’s partnership with the NSW Government and other community organisations. After a successful two-year trial, the WDO scheme was made permanent in 2011. Since then it was grown enormously. After only 5 years of operation, there were 1,650 service partners providing WDOs and more than $55 million in fines debt had been cleared.
Since 1982, PIAC has been a strong voice for fair treatment of consumers in relation to energy and water issues.
PIAC’s first case was a challenge to the retrospective application of electricity tariff increases. As a result of that case, the NSW Government stepped in to legislate against retrospective increases.
PIAC has since continued its work to ensure the fair, transparent and sustainable provision of water, gas, and electricity.
In 1998, the NSW Government provided funding for PIAC’s Utilities Consumer Advocacy Program (later known as the Energy + Water Consumers’ Advocacy Project, or EWCAP).
That funding enabled PIAC to employ dedicated staff to focus on energy and water issues. In addition to advocating for consumers in a range of forums, EWCAP published Cut Off, a series of reports into electricity, gas and water disconnections in NSW.
In May 2015, in a first for Australian consumer law, PIAC appealed the Australian Energy Regulator’s revenue decisions for the three NSW network businesses in the Australian Competition Tribunal, advocating for greater price reductions for consumers.
PIAC has maintained a strong commitment to Indigenous justice.
In 1997 PIAC was a leading voice in calling for reparations for the stolen generations. We have continued to work closely with families and communities affected by the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.
In 2001, PIAC commenced its Indigenous Justice Project, with funding from law firm Allens. Major areas of work have included:
- Strategic litigation around policing and detention, aiming to reduce the number of Aboriginal people in custody.
- The repayment of wages and other monies withheld from Aboriginal people by the NSW Government through the Aborigines Protection Board and the Aboriginal Welfare Board between 1900 and 1969.
Access to justice
PIAC has been a leader in promoting access to justice.
In 1992 PIAC led the formation of a Youth Justice Coalition that helped to establish a specialist legal service for young people. The National Children and Youth Law Centre opened in June 1993.
PIAC also worked with the NSW Law Society and private law firms to establish the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) NSW in July 1992 to help people access pro bono legal assistance. PILCH NSW and PILCH Victoria have since combined to form Justice Connect, with a Sydney office co-located with PIAC.
Other PIAC work to improve access to justice has included projects on the law of standing, work on the role of amicus curiae intervenors, and work to expand the scope for class actions and representative proceedings in Australia.
PIAC has a continuing focus on the importance of effective administrative law, including simpler and more accessible administrative law procedures and effective access to government information through freedom of information laws.
Much of PIAC’s work involves test cases to protect and promote human rights.
PIAC’s first big win was in its representation of six women sacked by Australian Iron and Steel in a complaint of sex discrimination. That case resulted in the landmark High Court decision, Australian Iron and Steel Pty Ltd v Banovic (1989) 168 CLR 165, a case that considered the impact of ‘indirect discrimination’ (where an apparently neutral condition has a disproportionate and unreasonable impact upon a particular group). The case led to over 150 women being compensated for discrimination against them.
In 2011 PIAC and Maurice Blackburn launched a class action on behalf of a group of young people who were wrongfully detained, and in some cases imprisoned, by the NSW Police as a result of problems with their computer system. The case was brought in order to achieve justice for the victims and to highlight the issues that were continuing to cause unlawful arrests. Settlement of the case was approved by the Supreme Court in February 2016, with the young people affected sharing over $2 million for the harm they suffered.
PIAC has also been a leader in disability discrimination litigation. Highlights include the case of Scarlett Finney, a young girl with spina bifida, who successfully asserted her right to equal access to education at the Hills Grammar School, and the successful case by Bruce Maguire against the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG), who challenged SOCOG’s failure to provide information in formats that were accessible to him as a blind man.
PIAC has also been active in litigation concerning the rights of asylum seekers, freedom of speech and the right of protest.
Accessible public transport
Accessible public transport is another important area of PIAC’s work. PIAC joined with the Australian Centre for Disability Law in mid-2006 to initiate a national action campaign on accessible airlines. PIAC client Maurice Corcoran was ultimately successful in his campaign to have airline Virgin Blue change its ‘Independent Travel Criteria’ to alleviate the disadvantage experienced by people with disability.
In March 2011, after a five-year battle, PIAC client Greg Killeen welcomed changes announced by Transport NSW and two large taxi companies that meant so-called wheelchair accessible taxis would finally become accessible to people using wheelchairs.
In 2013 PIAC represented Graeme Innes in a landmark disability discrimination complaint against RailCorp. Mr Innes successfully argued that RailCorp’s failure to provide audible ‘next stop’ announcements on Sydney’s train breached the Disability Discrimination Act. The decision has led to changes that mean blind people get the same information as other travellers on the almost 3,000 train services that run each week day.
PIAC’s health-related work includes law reform relating to ownership of medical records; campaigns for disclosure of the health effects of pharmaceuticals, human pituitary treatment and silicon breast implants; and work on the regulation and public disclosure of toxic chemical use.
In the 1980’s, PIAC played a significant role in advocating for justice for those patients mistreated and abused – with fatal consequences for some – at Chelmsford Private Hospital. The Royal Commission into the use of deep sleep therapy as a treatment for depression and compulsive behaviour exposed appalling abuses of the human rights of particularly vulnerable people.
PIAC played a major role in supporting women affected by the faulty intra-uterine device, the Dalkon Shield. The Dalkon Shield was linked to a condition called Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, a painful infection often resulting in infertility and potentially requiring hysterectomy. Infections generated by the Shield were held responsible for spontaneous abortions and associated septicaemia, and over 15,000 women filed personal injury claims in the United States.
PIAC’s involvement with the Shield started in 1983. The Leichhardt Women’s Health Service, then fighting an uphill battle to publicise the effects of the device, asked PIAC to assist in giving legal advice. PIAC helped publicise the US litigation and put individual women in contact with US lawyers.
PIAC’s casework took off after the maker of the Shiled filed for bankruptcy in the United States, saying that the outstanding Shield litigation could financially swamp the company. A deadline of 30 April 1986 was set for foreigners to lodge claims against the Dalkon Shield and PIAC helped 1,700 Australians file claims before the due date.
PIAC was involved in extensive litigation regarding the NSW HomeFund Scheme for much of the 1990s. PIAC fought for a large number of low-income homeowners who were facing high fixed-interest loans with annually increasing repayments and ballooning debt often exceeding the value of their homes. PIAC took the case to the High Court before it was ultimately settled.