Class Actions and Human Rights Litigation in Australia: Realising the Potential
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Most commentary and, indeed, most controversy concerning class actions in Australia has concerned shareholder class actions and how they are funded. This paper consciously changes the focus of its commentary away from such debates and towards examining human rights class actions in Australia. As Australia is the only advanced country without national constitutional or statutory protections of human rights, attempts to legally protect human rights have manifested themselves indirectly in various areas of the law that might not at first glance seem to have much to do with human rights. Class actions has been one of those legal areas. Given the paucity of existing commentary on Australian human rights class actions this paper begins with an examination of the types of cases that have been bought as human rights class actions and provides examples of them. Drawing on literature concerning the effectiveness of actions undertaken to protect human rights and on class actions protecting human rights overseas, it uses publicly available information to undertake a qualitative analysis concerning the effectiveness of such litigation. After coming to some tentative conclusions about such effectiveness, it examines whether US class actions law might be a source of ideas that could be adapted to address any such limitations of effectiveness in the same way that US class actions jurisprudence was originally drawn upon by the Australian Law Reform Commission to recommend that class actions provisions be enacted in Australia. Given the relative absence of legal norms protecting human rights in Australia as well as the relative weakness of social movements seeking greater legal protection for human rights in Australia, the search by human rights advocates for ways to access courts and obtain greater legal furtherance of human rights is a task of some urgency. This paper attempts to contribute to that search as well as to advance the analysis of Australian human rights class actions and their effectiveness more generally.
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