Federal Court Dismisses Case Against Qatar Airways Over Strip-Searches

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Qatar Airlines

The Federal Court of Australia has dismissed two sets of civil proceedings brought by five Australian women who were verbally chastised and strip-searched at Doha airport in 2020.

Although the decisions are disappointing for the women and much of the Australian public,  Justice John Halley made clear in his judgment that the women could still bring proceedings against Matar, a Qatar Airways-owned subsidiary engaged by the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority (QCAA) to run Doha airport.

Forcibly removed from an aircraft and strip-searched

The case relates to an incident in October 2020 during which the five Australian women were amongst 13 other Australians, forcibly removed from a Sydney-bound aircraft at Doha airport by armed guards. 

At the time, authorities were searching for the mother of a newborn baby found abandoned in a plastic bag at Hamad international airport and dumped in a rubbish bin. 

The five women, after being taken from the airplane, just prior to take off, were sent to an ambulance where they underwent invasive strip searches.  

Political controversy

The incident attracted media attention globally, particularly here in Australia, where it reached the echelons of Parliament. It is well known, and reported, that the incident was a factor behind transport minister Catherine King’s decision not to allow the airline’s request for more flights into, and out of Australia. 

The decision was so controversial that it resulted in a Parliamentary Inquiry last year.

The five women initiated civil action against the airline in 2022, later adding the QCAA and Matar to the case, seeking damages over alleged “unlawful physical contact”, false imprisonment and mental health impacts, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Montreal Convention 

The case against Qatar Airways was able to be heard in an Australian court because both Australia and Qatar are parties to an international agreement called the Montreal Convention, which governs airline liability around the world. 

Established in 1999, it set out regulations for airline liability in the case of death or injury to passengers, as well as in cases of delay, damage or loss of baggage and cargo, unifying all international treaties and regimes under one single convention.  

Under this convention a lawsuit can be brought before the courts in the jurisdiction where a passenger lives. Whether any further action can be taken here. 

As a member of the International Civil Aviation Organisation which is a specialised agency of the United Nations –  Australia signed the agreement and ratified it into law through the enactment of the Civil Aviation Amendment (1999 Montreal Convention and Other Measures) Act 2008 (Cth). 

The Federal Court Decision 

However, Justice Halley found the applicants were not able to bring a claim against the airline under the Montreal Convention, because the women’s argument against Qatar Airways did not meet international airline liability protocols. 

Qatar satisfied the Federal Court that the men responsible for taking the women from the plane were Qatari police under the command of Qatar’s ministry of interior (MOI), and not employees or agents of the airline or airport. They also satisfied the court that a nurse in an ambulance who performed the examinations was not employed by them.

The Civil Aviation Authority, QCAA, which is owned by the Qatari government, and was attached to the original lawsuit had been separately seeking a stay of proceedings on the basis of sovereign immunity. Justice Halley affirmed that the case could not proceed given the QCAA is a separate entity of a foreign state.

The women have been ordered to pay the costs of Qatar Airways and the QCAA. However, Justice Halley determined the case against Matar should proceed, under an amended statement of claim. 

The women are currently considering the court’s decision, but have yet to decide whether to appeal the Federal Court’s decision, or take alternative legal action. 

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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