Families of asylum seekers killed in a shipwreck off Australia's Christmas Island in 2010 are suing the government, arguing it breached its duty of care, in a legal move Canberra blasted as shameful.
Fifty people died when a rickety fishing boat crowded with nearly 100 Iraqi, Kurdish and Iranian asylum seekers was dashed against jagged rocks in dangerous seas at the remote Indian Ocean outpost.
Human rights lawyer George Newhouse launched legal action in the New South Wales state Supreme Court yesterday on behalf of eight families, claiming the government failed to maintain a proper lookout.
"We believe that the evidence will show that the Commonwealth knew, or should have known, that there were vulnerable men, women and children that were on the high seas in a storm and took insufficient steps to look out for them," he said.
He also claimed that when authorities found out the boat was foundering, the systems in place and operational life-saving vessels to rescue them were not adequate.
The group on board drifted for about an hour after losing engine power and only one man managed to leap to safety before the surging waves smashed the vessel apart on the rocks.
Fifty people died and 42 were rescued by the navy, and customs and border protection officials.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison defended the government's actions.
"Frankly, I think this is a shameful and offensive claim to be making," he said. "Sure, people have the right to bring cases to court - we are a free country - but they have to be accountable for the claims. This is like someone who has been saved from a fire suing the firemen."
After an eight-month hearing coroner Alastair Hope laid the blame for the tragedy firmly on the people smugglers who organised the trip. But he also criticised Australian authorities for the lack of adequate rescue vessels on the island.