Breaking cycles of disadvantage

As Attorney-General of Victoria, I would prioritise seeking changes to laws, policies and practices that compound cycles of disadvantage in our community. In the more eloquent words of my community legal sector colleague, Gary Sullivan, this would involve addressing systemic factors underpinning “the quiet desperation, chaotic lifestyles and multiple disadvantages that bring the poor and powerless into conflict with the broader community and the justice system” (see Poor, powerless and in trouble with the law). A message I have carried from my parents since my happy and stable childhood is that when exercising the right to vote, we should always vote for the benefit of those experiencing the most serious hardship. It is now very clear to me that laws and policies aimed at alleviating disadvantage benefit the whole community. That’s because enhancing equality is about enhancing the health and wellbeing of citizens, which in turn creates safer, more harmonious communities.

Also, we must not forget how life can easily take a turn for the worse. It is not uncommon in our sector to encounter people who are on track one minute, but experiencing great hardship the next. It is therefore important to recognise that disadvantage, while often systemic, is also a creature of sudden and unexpected circumstance.

These are the values I would bring to the role of Attorney-General: a view that human rights based laws aimed at enhancing equality and wellbeing benefit us all. I wouldn’t come to the role with all the answers. Rather, I would proactively seek views from all relevant stakeholders on how we can improve laws and strengthen the justice system for the purpose of enhancing equality.

I very much appreciate the interdependent nature of human rights protection and would take a holistic approach to policy formulation. For example, any decisions on criminal justice policy would take full account of the importance of the rights to housing, work and health to preventing behaviours leading people towards the criminal justice system.

Below are examples of three legal areas that I believe are ripe for a human rights based review.

The infringements system

The infringements system works effectively for most members of the community in that it allows people to discharge their fine by payment without having to go to court or having to potentially receive a criminal record. At the same time, however, there is a small minority of poor and powerless people for whom the infringements system is ineffective and unfair. Significant sources of disadvantage, such as poverty, homelessness, addiction, mental illness and illiteracy, underpin behaviours for which many members of our community are receiving infringements. A human rights based infringements system would provide people in these circumstances with assistance and support to overcome or manage their hardship to reduce the likelihood of committing further offences. As Attorney-General, I would put ideas forward on, and seek views on, effective measures for directing people experiencing hardship to support services as opposed to court and potentially jail.

Expanding JobWatch – Victoria’s specialist employment law service

The link between secure employment and the enjoyment of other human rights is obvious and well accepted. The Federal Government provides significant funding to both Fair Work Australia and the Fair Work Ombudsman, and both agencies play an important role in enhancing workplace rights. However, one of the largest areas of unmet legal need in Victoria is in the area of employment law. The Fair Work Ombudsman and Fair Work Australia can provide individuals seeking assistance with information, but cannot provide legal advice or advocacy. Considering the sensitive nature of employment disputes – for example, where raising problems with an employer can damage the employment relationship or lead to a loss of employment – what people really need is strategic legal advice on how to deal with their circumstances. This is evidenced by the fact that approximately 60 percent of calls received by Victoria’s specialist community legal centre, JobWatch, come by way of referral from the Fair Work Australia and Fair Work Ombudsman. Unfortunately, JobWatch has gone through significant funding uncertainty and has a huge unmet demand. As Attorney-General, I would consult with community legal centres and other organisations on significantly expanding JobWatch’s capacity to meet demand across Victoria. As employment legal issues can come under federal laws, I would again seek collaboration from the Commonwealth and State and Territory Attorneys-General to establish a well-resourced, nationwide specialist employment law service.

Debt collection practices of local councils

In Victoria, many local councils frequently sue their residents as an early means of recovering small amounts of unpaid rates, without first adequately exploring the reasons for non-payment and negotiating a sustainable payment plan. This is occurring in circumstances where residents are experiencing genuine financial hardship. Legal costs and court fees for small debt matters typically exceed $650, which is sometimes more than the original rate arrears due. Adding these costs and fees to the rates debt makes it even more difficult for local residents to repay the original debt. I know that many people are being sued often in circumstances where the council is on notice about the resident’s serious personal or financial hardship, including dealing with cancer, the death of an immediate family member, single motherhood combined with serious personal or family illness, long-term mental illness, and recent separation and divorce. Legal proceedings simply exacerbate these forms of hardship.

In addition to the harsh personal consequences, claims for unpaid rates take up a disproportionate and unnecessary amount of court resources, representing 50 percent of all undefended claims under $1000. Australia’s biggest debt collection agency, Credit Corp, reports in its 2011 annual report that improving its practices when dealing with people experiencing hardship, including by offering sustainable payment plans, has led to a significant increase in the recovery of debt. It is clear that responsible debt collection practices and hardship assistance benefits both business and community members. As Attorney-General, I would consult with relevant stakeholders, including local councils, financial counsellors, community lawyers and the State Ombudsman to improve the debt collection practices of local councils, including through the development of a financial hardship code of practice. I would take the outcomes and findings from this process to the Commonwealth and other State and Territory Attorneys-General to seek collaboration on enhancing responsible hardship assistance by all government and private organisations across Australia.

Jacqui Bell is a Policy Officer with the Federation of Community Legal Centres (Victoria). Jacqui is currently working on a joint project with Footscray Community Legal Centre aimed at developing a hardship code of practice for the Victorian local government sector.