Detained Rau goes to court

Government lawyers argue it is not responsible because the detention centre was run by private contractors at the time.

ALMOST two years after earning an apology from the Prime Minister John Howard, Cornelia Rau will go to the NSW Supreme Court to seek compensation for being wrongly detained as an illegal immigrant.

Lawyers for the German-born Australian resident confirmed yesterday they had begun proceedings after negotiations with the Federal Government broke down over who technically was responsible for her detention in 2004 and 2005, in a Queensland women's prison and at the Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia. Legal sources estimate her case, if successful, could be worth $1 million.

Government lawyers argue it is not responsible because the detention centre was run by private contractors at the time.

But the case, likely to be played out before the federal election, will focus yet again on the bungled Immigration Department in cases such as Ms Rau's and that of Philippines-born immigrant Vivian Alvarez Solon, who late last year won an undisclosed multimillion-dollar compensation package for being wrongly deported. The struggles of Ms Rau come despite the damning conclusions of a 2005 inquiry by former Australian Federal Police chief Mick Palmer, which found that although she was mentally ill and claiming to be a German tourist, systemic failings were to blame for her treatment.

At the time, Mr Howard acknowledged "both Cornelia Rau and Mrs Alvarez are owed apologies for their treatment … the victims of mistakes by the department" but refused to discuss compensation.

Ms Rau's solicitor, Harry Freedman, said: "We have reluctantly commenced legal proceedings against the Federal Government rather than proceed by way of alternative dispute resolution as, to date, the Government has required that any claim be dealt with in this way.

"It is unfortunate that Ms Rau is being forced to litigate, particularly when you consider the adverse findings and the recommendations of Mr Palmer. The fact that the Commonwealth contracts out its detention centre operations is not Ms Rau's problem. She is the victim in all this."

Although the Rau case has been linked closely with Ms Alvarez Solon, it is believed her lawyers will argue her situation is similar to the case of 11-year-old Iranian boy Shayan Badraie, who last year sued the Immigration Department on the grounds he was psychologically harmed while living at Woomera and Villawood detention centres between 2000 and 2002.

After 63 days of hearings, the boy's lawyers accepted an out- of-court settlement offer yesterday of $400,000, but legal sources say Ms Rau can expect more in compensation because she is an adult.

Ms Rau's sister, Christine, said she still hoped a court case could be avoided.

"All the parties would prefer this went to mediation and hope this is just the first step towards a mediation process."

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews said the Government was not aware that a suit had been filed.

"The Government has been waiting for some months to see a list of claims from Ms Rau's lawyers.

"We wish to expedite the matter and have it resolved as quickly as possible."

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