30 years of justice beating unfairness

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) is celebrating its 30th anniversary with the launch of 30 years, 30 stories.

30 years, 30 stories offers a snapshot of PIAC’s history and opens a window onto significant social and legal changes in Australia over the past three decades.

‘As PIAC celebrates its 30th birthday, we are happily re-telling tales of justice triumphing over unfairness,’ says PIAC chief executive, Edward Santow.

‘But we also recall that the cases PIAC has won and lost only exist because of real human suffering.

‘PIAC’s 30 years, 30 stories invokes the names of past PIAC greats such as founders, Peter Cashman, the Hon Justice Virginia Bell AC and Terrence Purcell, as well as key former staff such as Andrea Durbach and Robin Banks.

‘As we look ahead at our next 30 years, we’re acutely aware that much remains to be done to promote social justice for disadvantaged people. I know that PIAC can achieve amazing things in promoting social justice. We can’t do it alone; but we can do it with your help.’

PIAC staff and board, volunteers and associates, student placements and pro bono supporters have worked together to advance  public interest advocacy in Australia, providing a voice for the vulnerable, improving access to justice, and finding effective solutions to social problems and systemic disadvantage.

Consumer issues

A range of consumer issues have been among PIACs priorities over the years. Significant matters include the following:

Electricity costs

PIAC’s first case was Arthur Austin’s challenge in 1982 to the retrospective application of electricity tariff increases. As a result of that case, the NSWGovernment stepped in to legislate against retrospective increases.

PIAC subsequently increased its involvement in utilities, with a particular focus on the fair, transparent and sustainable provision of water, gas, and electricity.

In 1998, the NSW Government provided funding for PIAC’s Utilities Consumer Advocacy Program (later known as the Energy + Water Consumers’ Advocacy Project, or EWCAP).

That funding enabled PIAC to employ dedicated staff to focus on energy and water issues. A recent report released by PIAC and the Physical Disability Council of NSW highlights the inequity experienced by people with disability when it comes to electricity use and pricing. EWCAP has also published Cut Off, a series of reports into electricity, gas and water disconnections in NSW.

Product liability

PIAC played a major role in supporting women affected by the faulty intra-uterine device, the Dalkon Shield, sold internationally by an American firm, A.H.Robins Corporation of Virginia.

The Dalkon Shield was linked to a condition called Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, which is a painful infection often resulting in infertility and can require a hysterectomy. Infections generated by the Shield were held responsible for spontaneous abortions and associated septicaemia, and over 15,000 women filed personal injury claims in the US against A.H. Robins.

PIAC’s involvement with the Shield dates from 1983. The Leichhardt Women’s Health Service, then fighting an uphill battle to publicise the effects of the device, asked PIAC to assist in giving legal advice. PIAC helped publicise the US litigation and put individual women in contact with US lawyers.

PIAC’s casework took off after Robins filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code in 1985, saying that the outstanding Shield litigation could financially swamp the company. A deadline of 30 April 1986 was set for foreigners to lodge claims against the Dalkon Shield and PIAC helped 1,700 Australians file claims before the due date.


PIAC was involved in extensive litigation regarding HomeFund for much of the 1990s. PIAC represented a large number of low-income homeowners following the collapse of the NSW HomeFund scheme and continued with this work until 2001.


PIAC’s health-related work includes projects to reform the law relating to ownership of medical records; campaigns for disclosure of the health effects of pharmaceuticals, human pituitary treatment and silicon breast implants; and work on the regulation and public disclosure of toxic chemical use. In 1991, PIACpublished a series of papers on toxic chemicals, and in 1992 it published Toxic Maze.

Public transport

Accessible public transport is another important area of PIAC’s work. PIAC joined with the Australian Centre for Disability Law in mid-2006 to initiate a national action campaign on accessible airlines. PIAC client Maurice Corcoran was ultimately successful in his campaign to have airline Virgin Blue change its ‘Independent Travel Criteria’ to alleviate the disadvantage experienced by people with disability.

In March 2011, after a five-year battle, PIAC client Greg Killeen welcomed changes announced by Transport NSW and two large taxi companies that meant so-called wheelchair accessible taxis would finally become wheelchair accessible.

More recently, PIAC represented Graeme Innes, who is blind, in his disability discrimination complaint against RailCorp.

In 2013, Mr Innes celebrated a landmark decision in the Federal Magistrates Court. Mr Innes successfully argued that RailCorp’s failure to provide audible ‘next stop’ announcements on Sydney’s train breached Federal Disability Discrimination law. Mr Innes, who took the case in his private capacity, said: ‘All I wanted was for RailCorp to do what they do for everyone who is able to read print. That is, tell me where I am’.

Read more

The above represents only a small selection of areas in which PIAC has worked over the past decades. For a more detailed overview and information, please visit:

30 years, 30 stories’: celebrating 30 years of public interest advocacy

Celebrating PIAC’s 30th anniversary: an overview