Bushfire roadblocks raise legal questions

Bushfire roadblocks raise legal questions

14 February 2013

published by www.abc.net.au

Australia — It has emerged Tasmanian Police may have been acting outside the scope of their powers when they set up road blocks in the south-east in the aftermath of last month’s bushfires.

Police declared the Tasman and Forestier Peninsulas a crime scene after fire tore through the picturesque region on January the fourth, destroying one-hundred and 70 properties in the communities of Dunalley, Murdunna and Bunker Bay.

The move effectively blocked access to the peninsulas, stranding thousands of residents and tourists.

Now it has been revealed police were informed by their principal legal advisor they did not have the power to declare the region a crime scene, meaning the road blocks were invalid.

An internal document written by Mark Miller says the provisions of the Police Incidents Act were not intended to apply to an event affecting a large area of the state.

The forced isolation presented problems for Sharon Fotheringham who says police stopped her from returning home with medication for her 87 year old father.

“We were trying to get back to life and the police were not allowing that, we couldn’t get medication in, we couldn’t get food in, we couldn’t get generator fuel in.

“They’d let us out but they wouldn’t let us back in,” she said.

The Tasman Mayor, Jan Barwick, copped flak from people who were isolated.

“There was a lot of angst for people wanting to get out, there was a lot of angst for people who had been evacuated who wanted to get back to see what they had left,” she said.

Police say they declared the region a crime scene because it was not clear if the fire had been deliberately lit or if anyone had died.

They ruled out fatalities after searching more than 1,000 properties for bodies.

The Acting Police Commissioner at the time, Scott Tilyard, says the road blocks were legal and there is no need for an apology.

“There’s actually a range of legislation that can give police powers to take those sort of actions in those sort of situation.

“I’d rather be responding to a few people criticising us for taking too long then trying to explain why we let people back into an area that was unsafe,” said Mr Tilyard.

But Mr Tilyard says police have learnt lessons from the mistake.

“It certainly means for large-scale bushfire events we wouldn’t be looking to invoke the Police Offences Act provisions,” he said.

Police charged three people for disobeying their directions.


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