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President spells out 2019 policy priorities

17 January 2019
 

It was the inimitable former High Court judge Michael Kirby who observed that: “The protection of our liberties does not ultimately depend on parliaments or even the courts. It depends on the love of the people for liberty”.

As we enter a new year – an election year – it is important to take stock of these poignant words.

Undoubtedly many Australians feel disengaged and disenfranchised with federal politics, its seemingly unending turmoil, growing populism and the cult of personality taking precedence over policy.

In 2018, headlines were dominated by the personal lives and personal rivalries of our elected representatives. Policy debates were often rushed and overshadowed by the latest political controversy.

There is cynicism in the community and scepticism about the priorities of our parliament.

Amid this climate of unrest, however, it is important Australians don’t forget that democracy forms the very foundation of our society.

It is also a timely reminder that the law belongs to everyone - it plays a pivotal role in the lives of all people and its form and function are everyone’s business.

In this capacity, the Law Council of Australia, as the peak legal body, works to help ensure legislation that passes through our parliament is fair and equitable, respects the rule of law and does not impinge on human rights.

We are especially passionate about giving a voice to society’s marginalised and disadvantaged, who all too often fall through the cracks.

In 2019, these are some of the Law Council of Australia’s key policy priorities.

First, we will fight for increased funding and access to legal aid.

Most Australians assume if they get embroiled in a serious problem and can't afford a lawyer, legal aid will be there to help. Today, they're mostly wrong.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts by successive Federal Governments have pushed legal aid to the brink of collapse.

Today, even people living below the poverty line are often judged too wealthy to qualify for scant legal aid funding.

It is our firm belief timely legal assistance stops simple problems escalating into more serious matters, reducing financial and social costs to the community. It also means those on the fringes – the disabled, elderly, mentally ill and culturally isolated – will not be left bearing further burden.

Second, we will continue to advocate for the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, pivotal in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ pursuit of self-determination.

Addressing ballooning Indigenous incarceration rates is also central to our mission – this issue is not only a national emergency but a national tragedy.

In 2018 (ABS), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners account for 28 per cent of the prison population but just two per cent of Australia’s adult population. This is unacceptable.

Third, we will step up our push for an independent Federal Judicial Commission to promote transparency and accountability for judges.

Though the Law Council supports the establishment of the Commonwealth Integrity Commission, it reasserts that its scope should not include the judiciary. This would be a clear breach of the separation of powers.

A separate Federal Judicial Commission would alleviate this serious concern while ensuring crucial accountability.

Fourth, we will continue to push for Australia to adopt a national human rights charter or bill of rights. This would provide certainty and statutory protection to the freedoms we hold so dearly.

Finally, the Law Council will robustly advocate for adequate resourcing of our chronically underfunded Federal Courts.

It is astounding that, in a prosperous nation, families and children are forced to wait up to three years for resolution of Family Court matters. This includes people who have fled family violence situations and are struggling to make ends meet.

To this end, we oppose measures that would see a merger of the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court. It will not solve the delays in family law cases but may increase the delays and lead to errors in the determination of cases. What is required are more resources for our federal courts to cope with their workloads.

Undoubtedly, our advocacy on these issues will only scratch the surface of our work in 2019 and build on that already done.

However, one thing is certain.

We will continue to be a leading voice – and force – in public discourse and debate, advocating for laws that respect human dignity and, above all, the liberty of Australians.

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