If I Were Victorian Attorney-General, I Would Strive for a Social Justice Legacy

The defeat of the Brumby Government marked the end of the term of Australia’s longest-serving Attorney-General, Rob Hulls.  As Victoria’s first law officer for eleven years, Hulls was responsible for major justice system reform and significantly elevated the status of the justice portfolio, making it a key plank of the former government’s platform for a ‘fairer Victoria’. Under Hulls’ leadership, Victoria became the first state to enact a Charter of Human Rights.  He oversaw the modernisation of the equal opportunity act and supported and strengthened access to justice through legal aid and community legal centres.  Hulls’ commitment to addressing ‘causes of crime’ resulted in the establishment of innovative ‘problem-solving’ courts – including the Drugs Court and the Koori Court – which have reduced re-offending and promoted rehabilitation.

Hulls did not leave Victoria, however, an access to justice paradise.  There are significant delays in Victoria’s court system.  Prison and police monitoring and oversight mechanisms remain inadequate and weak.  Victorian law permits random strip searches of children and people with disability, even in the absence of a parent or independent third person.  And discrimination on the grounds of homelessness and irrelevant criminal record remain lawful and widespread.

The nation’s newest Attorney-General, the Liberal’s Robert Clark, comes to the justice portfolio on a platform well-suited to continuing reform and addressing outstanding injustices.  The Premier, Ted Baillieu, has committed to a ‘stronger, safer and fairer’ Victoria.  He has promised that ‘transparency and accountability will underpin government’.  Clark has previously written and spoken of the need to improve access to justice and the rule of law, ‘uphold rights’ and remedy ‘genuine injustice’.

Working at the coalface of the justice system for the last ten years – five with a homeless person’s legal service and five with a human rights law centre – I have some insights as to what this requires in concrete terms.  So here is a modest agenda for Victoria’s new Attorney-General, the Hon Robert Clark.

First, the Baillieu Government should commit to retaining and strengthening the Charter of Rights and Responsibilities.  Respect for human rights is one of the foundations of a community that is fair, just, cohesive and inclusive.  While the Charter has not been a panacea for injustice and disadvantage, it has unquestionably increased governmental accountability, improved some public services and catalysed some legislative safeguards.  Most significantly, it has been used in individual cases to uphold the rights and dignity of the homeless, the elderly, people with mental illness and children with disability.  Four years old now, the Charter is due to be reviewed in 2011.  The review presents an opportunity to conduct an evidence-based assessment of the Charter and the ways in which it could be reformed to improve respect for human rights in law and practice.

Second, the Baillieu Government should ensure that Victoria Police are provided with comprehensive training regarding human rights-compliant policing and particularly human rights-compliant use of force.  The inquest into the death of 15 year old Tyler Cassidy has heard evidence as to systemic failings in police training, including with respect to engaging with young people and people who are experiencing mental health crises.  Better resources and training are required to equip police to ensure the safety and uphold the rights of their members and the broader community.

Third, the Baillieu Government should ensure that Victoria’s new integrity and anti-corruption commission is empowered and resourced to investigate police-related deaths.  The current system, in which police investigate police, weakens accountability and undermines public confidence.  The investigation of police-related deaths should be undertaken by a body that is hierarchically, institutionally and practically independent of Victoria Police.  Investigations should be thorough, prompt, open to public scrutiny and involve the family of the deceased.

In the same vein, the Baillieu Government should establish an independent, publicly accountable monitoring and oversight body for places of detention.  Victoria’s Ombudsman has published a number of recent reports highly critical of detention conditions and practices, including in youth facilities, police cells and the Melbourne Custody Centre.  Conditions have been described as ‘appalling’, ‘disgraceful’ and incompatible with human rights.  An independent inspectorate, similar to that established under Western Australia’s Inspector of Custodial Services Act, could examine systemic issues in detention, provide expert advice to the government and parliament, and enhance community confidence in the correctional system.  The Baillieu Government should also undertake a comprehensive review and modernisation of correctional laws, policies and practices.  The humane treatment of detainees contributes to rehabilitation, social reintegration, reduced recidivism, and safer communities.

Fifth and finally, the Baillieu Government should enhance access to justice by increasing funding to community legal centres, Victoria Legal Aid and interpretative services.  The Government should also continue to promote and encourage pro bono service provision, including through governmental legal service procurement arrangements.  As Clark has himself written, it is crucial to fairness and the rule of law that the justice system is accessible, efficient and effective.  Better funding of, and support to, access to justice services such as community legal centres would, to use Mr Clark’s words, ‘improve access, reduce costs and waiting times, uphold rights and support the independent, impartial and efficient operation of courts and tribunals’.

Over the coming years, the nation’s newest Attorney-General has the opportunity to make his mark on the Victorian justice system.  Together, these five modest reforms would strengthen our laws and institutions, deepen our democracy, promote good government, contribute to the alleviation of poverty and disadvantage, and make Victoria a fairer, stronger and safer place.

And that’s a legacy to strive for.

Philip Lynch is Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre