The Australian Federal Government could be forced to abandon offshore processing following a High Court ruling declaring that the Government had been treating asylum seekers unfairly and illegally.
The entire refugee processing system is now in chaos after the court ruled the Government could no longer hold people on Christmas Island outside the protection of normal Australian law.
In finding in favour of two Tamil men who challenged the Government's decision to deport them to Sri Lanka, the court ruled they had been denied "procedural fairness".
Lawyers for the two men last night said they had an unspecified number of clients now willing to take court action, and claimed that he 5200 asylum seekers now in detention would also be protected by yesterday's decision.
The Federal Government might also be liable for costs. "What this is saying is that the Government's attempts to decide people's claims outside the protection of the courts has failed," said Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre director David Manne, who brought the court action.
"These decisions were unfair and unlawful by not applying ordinary Australian law to life and death situations." Immigration Minister Chris Bowen conceded the ruling meant that people who arrive by boat must now be treated in the same way as others.
Under the offshore processing system, boat arrivals were treated outside the normal court system, unlike those who arrived by plane. Mr Bowen last night was seeking urgent legal advice from the Solicitor-General.
"It's important that we recognize that this is a significant judgment," Mr Bowen said.
"It has significant ramifications. It needs to be worked through in a methodical and calm manner, which is what I'll be doing in coming weeks and making recommendations to my Cabinet colleagues."
The two Tamil asylum seekers, known only as M61 and M69, were among 89 people flown from Christmas Island to the Villawood detention centre in Sydney in 2009.
They claimed they would be in danger from the Sri Lankan army if returned because of their support for the separatist Tamil Tigers group.
Mr Bowen warned that the decision could mean asylum seekers were detained for longer if they elected to appeal through the court system.
He said the decision was a result of the Howard government's policy of offshore processing in 2001, while the Opposition claimed it was a "mess entirely of the Government's own making" from 2008 rule changes. (The Daily Telegraph)