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Relevant legal issues

Protests can sometimes involve police, or authorised officers (such as, in the case of forest protests, employees of the Department of Sustainability and Environment). Potentially, people can be arrested and charged with offences. In addition to many of the common offences and legal issues described elsewhere, there are a range of special legal issues that are directly relevant for environmental activists.

For detailed information regarding ‘Police Powers’ see Police powers and your rights.

“Authorised Officers” 


The management and protection of forests on public land in Victoria is controlled by the Secretary of the Department of Sustainability and Environment ("DSE”) under Section 18 of the Forests Act 1958 (Vic) (“ FA ”). Section 83 of the Conservation, Forests and Lands Act 1987 (Vic) (“CFLA”) enables the Secretary to appoint government employees (usually DSE employees) as authorised officers. VicForest employees may also be appointed, however authorised officers are prohibited from trading in forest produce, or having any interest in any lease, licence or permit for land or the working of any forest produce.

Other types of authorised officers can include:

  • VicRoads employees appointed under the Road Management Act 2004
  • Council employees appointed under the Local Government Act 1989 (“ LGA ”)or the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008
  • Department of Primary Industries officers appointed under the Prevention of Cruely to Animals Act 1986
  • An officer appointed under the Water Act 1989.

If an authorised officer attempts to exercise their powers, you should ask them to identify themselves and what their official status is. Authorised officers often work in coordination with police, who will look on and may assist if necessary (for example, with arrests).

Authorised officers are empowered to enforce the applicable laws and regulations in State forest including as provided under the FA, the CFLA, the Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act 2004 (Vic) (“SFTA”) and, most commonly, the Safety on Public Land Act 2004 (Vic) (“SPLA”).

Providing information to authorised officers


Authorised officers often have powers to require you to provide your details if they reasonably believe that you have committed or are committing an offence against the Act under which they are appointed. For example, authorised DSE officers can ask you for your name and address if they have a belief based on reasonable grounds that you are committing an offence against the SPLA(s17) or the FA(s95A). The authorised DSE officer can require you to provide evidence of you name and address, if they believe that the details you provide are false. You must provide this evidence, unless you have a reasonable excuse (for example, if you have no such evidence on you).

Similarly, an authorised Council officer can demand your name and address if they reasonably suspect you have committed or are about to commit an offence against any Act, regulation or local law which they are appointed to enforce under the LGA(s224(6)). Both authorised DSE officers and authorised Council officers must tell you the grounds their belief that you are committing or about to commit an offence under the FA (s95A), SPLA (s 17), LGA (s 224(6A)).

If you fail to provide your name and address to an authorised DSE officer, provide false details, or refuse to provide evidence of your details without reasonable excuse you can be fined up to around $600, by FA (s95A(3)), SPLA (s17(3)). The officer must inform you of this if they wish to charge you. If you fail to give your name and address to an authorised Council officer, you can be liable for a fine of up to around $7,300 by the LGA (s 224(8)).

Obtaining information from authorised officers

Usually, authorised officers are required to provide you with their name, and advise you of their status as an authorised officer. For example, if an authorised DSE officer asks for your name and address, they must also provide you with proof of their identity if you ask ( FA s 95B, SPLA s 17(6)). Similarly, an authorised DSE officer cannot direct you to leave a public safety zone without first showing you proof of their identity and official status ( SPLA s 14).

Authorised Council officers must, if requested to do so, produce their identify card, which must contain their photo, their signature and the signature of a member of Council ( LGA ( s 224(4)).

Answering questions from authorised officers 


As with the police, other than providing your name and address, you do not have to answer any other questions from any authorised officers: you have a right to remain silent or say ‘no comment’.

As with the police, there is no such thing as an ‘off the record’ conversation. Anything you say can be used against you if you are later charged and prosecuted in court.

Authorised officers may make an arrest 


Under the Crimes Act 1958 (“CA”), any person (not just police) can carry out a ‘citizen’s arrest’: that is, they can apprehend another person committing a statutory or common law offence, where they believe on reasonably grounds that the apprehension is necessary to preserve public order or to prevent the continuation of the offence, or for other reasons ( CAs 458(1)). This includes authorised officers.

If you are arrested by an authorised officer using these powers, you can only be held in custody so long as the officer reasonably believes that the apprehension is necessary ( CAs 458(3)).

In some instances, authorised officers using citizen’s arrests powers may be entitled to use such force as is believe on reasonable grounds to be necessary ( CAs 462A).

Authorised officers must comply with the Information Privacy Principles 


Councils, public sector agencies and authorised officers, as well as contractors who provide services under a State contract are required to comply with the Information Privacy Principles. The Information Privacy Principles are rules about when and how your personal information may be collected and used, under the Information Privacy Act 2000 (s 9) (“ IPA ”). Your personal information includes your name and address, but also photographs of you.

For example, one of the Principles states that a person or organisation bound by the principles must not collect your personal information unless it is necessary for their agency’s functions or activities, and that the person or organisation must only collect personal information by lawful and fair means, and not in an unreasonably intrusive way. The organisation must also take reasonable steps to inform you about why the information is being collected, among other things (Information Privacy Principle 1.3).

The Principles also state that the person or organisation collecting your personal information can only use it for the purpose for which it was collected, or for another purpose which you would reasonably expect. The complete list of the Principles can be accessed in the IPAor on the Privacy Commissioner’s website (www.privacy.vic.gov.au).

An agency acting in a law enforcement capacity is not required to comply with some of the Information Privacy Principles ( IPA, s13). This does not apply, however, to individual authorised officers. If you believe that there has been a breach of the Information Privacy Principles, you can complain to the Privacy Commissioner. The Commissioner has the power to refer matters to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).

If you are concerned that your information, such as your photograph, have been collected inappropriately and want to know if there has been a breach of the Information Privacy Principles, you should contact a lawyer.

Other powers of authorised officers 


The powers of appointed authorised officers depend on the legislation they are appointed under.

Authorised DSE officers have the powers to:

  • Direct you to leave a public safety zone ( SPLAs 14);
  • Seize and remove ‘abandoned goods’ (that is, property you have left unattended in a State Forest by section 95C of the FA. They can destroy the item if they think it is perishable, or dangerous;
  • Seize any item used or being used in the commission of an offence, although the officer must provide a receipt ( FAs 95F; SFTAs 88) and make reasonable efforts to return the item to its owner within 7 days, or after 90 days of its seizure the owner can apply for its return FAs 95G; and/or,
  • Start proceedings against you for committing certain offences in reserved forest ( FAs 78(2)).

It is an offence to threaten, abuse or hinder an authorised officer 


It is an offence to threaten or abuse an authorised DSE officer exercising their duties or powers under the SFTA (s87) or the FA (s96B). It is an also an offence to hinder or obstruct, without reasonable excuse, an authorised DSE officer carrying out their duties or powers under the SFTA (s86) , FA (s96A) or the SPLA (s20). If you commit any of these offences, you can be fined up to around $7,400.

It is an offence to hinder or obstruct an authorised Council officer performing their duties, with a maximum fine of around $7,300 under the LGA (s224(8).

Police and DSE officers can lay multiple charges for a single event. Activists have been faced with up to 14 charges for the same event in past actions. The criminal offences most frequently prosecuted are listed in the following section.