By Geoff Spencer
MELBOURNE — A significant victory was won against the Kennett government on January 11 with the dismissal of all charges against eight activists arrested at the Richmond Secondary College (RSC) in December 1993. The prosecution of the "Richmond 8" was widely seen as an attempt by Kennett to criminalise protests against the extensive cutbacks carried out by his hard-nosed government.
The eight were arrested following a vicious baton attack by police on a Trades Hall Council-endorsed picket at RSC. In addition to the usual charges of hindering, obstruction and resisting arrest, four of the eight were charged with "besetting" premises. This law was introduced at the height of the Vietnam moratorium movement to block occupations and sit-ins. Its use against picketers at RSC was the first time the charge had been applied.
The Richmond 8 and their supporters understood that this was a test case; if the charges were upheld, the government would have another anti-union law at its disposal. This was reinforced on December 12, day one of the hearing, when police laid besetting charges against the remainder of the eight. On December 21, the prosecution offered to drop all other charges if the eight pleaded guilty to besetting. The deal was rejected.
The besetting charges were the first to be dismissed. The ruling places some limit on the ability of police to use the law in breaking future pickets: for the charge of besetting premises to be successful, the whole place has to be surrounded.
The magistrate went on to find that the prosecution had failed to prove 14 of the 18 charges. While the remaining charges were proved, they too were dismissed, the magistrate saying it would be unjust to do otherwise. Lou Schetzer, one of two legal counsels employed by the eight, said that the ruling "exceeded legal and academic expectations to be so conclusively dismissed".
However, there are still writs hanging over other Friends of Richmond (FOR) activists. Steven Jolly had over $6500 in costs awarded against him as a result of a Supreme Court order to evict occupiers from RSC in 1993. The taxing master has yet to make an attempt to collect the money. The other writ is for $1.4 million in damages supposedly done to RSC during the occupation. So far only two of six people named have been served — Jolly and Elvie Sievers.
FOR is considering further legal action. Yvette Meyer, one of the Richmond 8, said after the hearing, "We have got enough evidence from the prosecution against us to actually lay charges against the police for assault and for acting outside their duty". Meyer urged the director of public prosecutions to lay charges against police involved in the baton charge.
Along with other picketers injured in the baton assault, the Richmond 8 plan to take the matter further in the civil courts. About 20 people have indicated they are willing to pursue civil action and/or compensation from the Crimes Compensation Tribunal.
Elvie Sievers, who is claiming just $1 in damages, commented: "All we ever wanted was an education for our kids. I don't want their money. I want some answers. I want someone to say this wasn't right and it won't happen again."
Geoff Spencer is one of the Richmond 8.]