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6.4.3. Cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Scope of the right

  1. Section 10(b) is based on art 7 of the ICCPR (Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Bill 2006 Explanatory Memorandum, 10; see also European Convention on Human Rights, art 3).
  2. Neither the Charter nor the ICCPR define ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’.
  3. ‘Treatment’ has a wide meaning, including ‘behaving or dealing with someone in a certain way, giving medical care or attention or applying a process or substance to someone’. It ‘picks up a broad range of governmental and other action and decision-making towards people, consistently with the fundamental purpose of the right’ (Kracke v Mental Health Review Board (2009) 29 VAR 1; [2009] VCAT 646 [557]).
  4. The Convention against Torture also prohibits cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Since the Explanatory Memorandum for the Charter refers to this convention in assisting with the meaning of ‘torture’, it may also be useful in understanding the meaning of ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’, although it does not define that phrase. Under the Convention against Torture, acts which do not amount to torture under the definition in art 1 can amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment if inflicted by or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or a person acting in an official capacity (art 16(1)).
  5. Therefore, it is suggested that to be within the scope of the prohibition, the harm must be carried out by a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. As with the right against torture, the relevant test for a public official in this context will correlate to the test for a public authority under the Charter.
  6. With respect to punishment, Bell J has suggested that the prohibition under s 10(b) applies directly to courts through s 6(2)(b), even when they are acting judicially and therefore are not public authorities. The punishment aspect of the rights applies to courts because it relates specifically to what courts do in sentencing proceedings (Kracke v Mental Health Review Board (2009) 29 VAR 1; [2009] VCAT 646 [253]). For more information on s 6(2)(b), see 2.5. Direct application of Charter rights to courts.
  7. Similar acts may amount to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, depending on the circumstances. For example, if a police officer has beaten a detainee with a truncheon for the purpose of extracting a confession, that must be considered torture if it inflicts severe pain or suffering. However, the beating with a truncheon of a detainee walking to or from a cell might amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (Report of the Special Rapporteur on the question of Torture to the Commission on Human Rights, UN Doc E/CN.4/2006/6 (23 December 2005) [38]).
  8. In order for conduct to amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, it need not involve physical pain and can include acts that cause both physical and mental suffering. Treatment or punishment that humiliates or debases a person, causes fear, anguish or a sense of inferiority, or is capable of possibly breaking moral or physical resistance or driving a person to act against their will or conscience, can be cruel, inhuman or degrading (Kracke v Mental Health Review Board (2009) 29 VAR 1; [2009] VCAT 646 [561]; Certain Children by their Litigation Guardian Sister Marie Brigid Arthur v Minister for Families and Children [2016] VSC 796 [160] (‘Certain Children (No 1)’); Certain Children v Minister for Families and Children & Ors (No 2) [2017] VSC 251 [250] (‘Certain Children (No 2)’); see also Keenan v United Kingdom (2001) 33 EHRR 38 [109]; Pretty v United Kingdom (2002) 35 EHRR 1 [52]; Taunoa v Attorney-General (2007) 9 HRNZ 104).
  9. Although it need not be as severe as torture, the standard of ill-treatment in question must reach a minimum level of severity or intensity before it can amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (Kracke v Mental Health Review Board (2009) 29 VAR 1; [2009] VCAT 646 [559] – [560], [574]; Certain Children (No 2) [2017] VSC 251 [250]).
  10. Assessment of this minimum threshold will depend on all circumstances of the case, including the duration of the treatment, its physical or mental impact, and the sex, age, and state of health of the alleged victim. Where the alleged victim is a child, that fact will be significant (Certain Children (No 1) [2016] VSC 796 [160]-[161]; Certain Children (No 2) [2017] VSC 251 [250]).
  11. Section 10(b) appears to have an internal limitation, as the minimum threshold of severity involves considering all the circumstances. The right will not be engaged unless the use of force is grossly disproportionate to the purpose it seeks to achieve and results in pain and suffering which reaches that minimum threshold of severity (see, eg, Certain Children (No 2) [2017] VSC 251 [250]).
  12. Most instances of s 10(b) engagement will involve deliberate infliction of severe suffering or intentionally harming, humiliating or debasing the victim. The purpose of the relevant conduct is a factor to be taken into account in assessing whether s 10(b) has been breached. However, the absence of deliberate infliction of suffering, harm, humiliation or debasement does not conclusively rule out a breach of the right (Certain Children (No 2) [2017] VSC 251 [250]).
  13. The following examples of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment are taken from Victorian cases:

    No procedural right to an independent investigation of a potential s 10 breach

  14. In Bare v IBAC, the applicant argued that the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under s 10(b) included an implied procedural right to have credible allegations of such treatment or punishment independently investigated. The Court of Appeal rejected the argument, finding that no such implied right was included in the scope of s 10(b) (Bare v IBAC (2015) 48 VR 129; [2015] VSCA 197 [186]–[215] (Warren CJ) [398]–[458] (Tate JA), [640]–[666] (Santamaria JA)).
  15. The argument was based on jurisprudence relating to the rights contained in the ICCPR and European Convention of Human Rights, and on United Kingdom jurisprudence under the Human Rights Act 1998 (UK). The Court of Appeal found that the right to an effective investigation into an allegation of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment in the relevant international and foreign jurisprudence relied on provisions that have no equivalent in the Charter. These provisions included art 2 of the ICCPR, which obliges States to investigate ICCPR rights breaches, and arts 1 and 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which impose obligations on member States to secure the convention rights and giving a right to an effective remedy for their breach respectively (Bare v IBAC (2015) 48 VR 129; [2015] VSCA 197 [186]–[215] (Warren CJ) [398]–[458] (Tate JA), [640]–[666] (Santamaria JA)).

    Reasonable and justified limits under s 7(2)

  16. Under the ICCPR, the prohibition on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is an absolute right and the ICCPR contains no general limitations provision. However, the definition of the right includes an element of proportionality:

    [S]ince the enforcement of the law against suspected criminals, rioters or terrorists may legitimately require the use of force, and even of lethal weapons, by the police and other security forces, only if such use of force is disproportionate in relation to the purpose to be achieved and results in pain or suffering meeting a certain threshold, will it amount to cruel or inhuman treatment or punishment. Whether the use of force is to be qualified as lawful … or excessive depends on the proportionality of the force applied in a particular situation. Disproportionate or excessive exercise of police powers amounts to [cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment] and is always prohibited (Report of the Special Rapporteur on the question of Torture to the Commission on Human Rights, UN Doc E/CN.4/2006/6 (23 December 2005) [38]).

  17. Charter rights should be given a broad meaning, and are then each subject to reasonable and justified limits under s 7(2). Under the Charter, the question of proportionality falls within the s 7(2) analysis, rather than when defining the scope of the right (Bare v IBAC (2015) 48 VR 129; [2015] VSCA 197 [160] (Warren CJ), citing Re Application under the Major Crimes (Investigative Powers) Act (2009) 24 VR 415; [2009] VSC 381).
  18. In Certain Children v Minister for Families and Children & Ors (No 2), authorising officers to carry OC spray and extendable batons in an environment that enclosed children imposed a justifiable limit on the rights in ss 17(2) and 22(1) of the Charter; however, the court held there was no limitation of the right in s 10(b). This was because the use of those weapons would only occur as a proportionate response to a safety threat to a person, having regard to their age, and the weapons could not be used to inflict bodily injury or intense physical or mental suffering (Certain Children v Minister for Families and Children & Ors (No 2) [2017] VSC 251 [430], [488])
  19. On the other hand, conduct that limits the right disproportionately in the circumstances, for example, where police use excessive or unnecessary force, may be considered a limitation of the right that could not be justified under s 7(2).
  20. Generally, when a person is under the control of the public authority in question, and therefore powerless against them, the proportionality test in respect of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is less likely to be satisfied (Report of the Special Rapporteur on the question of Torture to the Commission on Human Rights, UN Doc E/CN.4/2006/6 (23 December 2005) [40]).

Last updated: 1 September 2017

See Also

6.4. Protection from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (s 10)

6.4.1. Introduction

6.4.2. Torture

6.4.4. Medical or scientific experimentation or treatment