Climate protesters have launched legal action against the Victorian government, claiming police inappropriately doused them with capsicum spray during an ugly clash at a 2019 global mining conference in Melbourne.
A class action filed in the Supreme Court overnight on Thursday alleges officers used excessive force against protesters at the International Mining and Resources Conference in Melbourne in October 2019.
The conference was plagued by days of volatile demonstrations, with climate activists trying to shut the conference down.
The claim alleges dousing protesters in capsicum spray is unlawful when it's used as a coercive tool, or when there is no immediate or proportionate threat to police officers or the public.
The class action, filed by law firm Phi Finney McDonald and the Police Accountability Project at Inner Melbourne Community Legal, aims to protect the right to protest without fear of excessively heavy-handed police tactics, according to the firm.
The class action is needed to hold police accountable for their actions and decisions, lead plaintiff and journalist Jordan Brown said.
"I've been documenting protests for two decades, and see that police continue to systematically suppress basic civil and political rights throughout Australia in increasing measure," he said.
"This class action provides a pathway towards some meaningful change in Victoria."
Inner Melbourne Community Legal principal solicitor Gregor Husper said he was concerned about the rising "militarisation" of Victoria Police, and the right to demonstrate is integral to a functioning democratic society.
He said capsicum spray could cause significant injuries, and potentially permanent disabilities.
"Victoria Police's own manual states that capsicum spray should only be used in limited circumstances including situations of violence or serious physical confrontation," Mr Husper said.
Lawyers are expected to rely in part on footage of protesters at the Melbourne conference being sprayed.
Everyone has the right to peacefully protest, but that does not equate to an unfettered right to blockade, beset a premises, or restrict the lawful activities of others in the community, a Police Association of Victoria spokesman said.
"Our members are always caught in the middle of events like this, as they concentrate their efforts on maintaining the balance between the rights of protesters and the rights of others in the community," he said.
"Four police members were injured during this demonstration.
"Those injuries and the use of force can be avoided if protesters respond to lawful directions of police responding to these events."
The class action is the first in Australia regarding the use of capsicum spray, and members of the public who attended the International Mining and Resources Conference may be eligible to register, Phi Finney McDonald special counsel Olivia McMillan said.
The Victorian government and police declined to comment while the matter was before the courts.