Speech - Ceremony to welcome the 2018 new legal year

January 29, 2018

Thank you Aunty Agnes for your warm Welcome to Country. I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on, the Ngunnawal people. I acknowledge their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of this city and this region, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and future. I would also like to welcome other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are attending this event today.

I would also like to thank ACT Law Society President Sarah Avery and ACT Bar Association President Ken Archer for hosting the event this morning and acknowledge the Hon Chief Justice Helen Murrell, other judicial officers and the ACT’s Australian of the Year for 2018 Dion Devow. Justice Murrell and Dion will each be speaking shortly.

It is tradition for the Attorney-General to make remarks about the administration of justice at the commencement of the legal year, and I am very pleased to continue the tradition. In particular I would like to acknowledge today as Justice Penfold’s final opening ceremony as a sitting Judge, and Associate Justice McWilliam’s first.

As was set out in the Commonwealth’s Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988, and again in our own Law Officers Act 2011, at the heart of the role of Attorney-General is responsibility for the administration of justice.

This is a time-honoured prerogative inherited from the United Kingdom.

I was recently amused to find that until 2002, parts of the UK’s Administration of Justice Act 1696 and 1705 were in fact still being applied in the ACT. It does seem a little ironic that sometimes the administration of justice requires the repeal of legislation dealing with administration of justice – even if that legislation is archaic.

I particularly enjoyed reading the discussion around other ancient Acts that were repealed at the same time as those old Administration of Justice Acts, especially on the relevance of historic English piracy laws to activities on Lake Burley Griffin. These days, discussion around piracy means things quite different from the Piracy Acts of 1698, 1717, 1721 or 1744.

While I haven’t yet had the opportunity to repeal legislation quite so outdated, one of my biggest priorities for this year is building a more accessible, timely and transparent justice system – especially through law reform.

As written by the former Chief Justice of South Australia, the Hon L J King in 2000, “The Attorney-General has the unique role in government of being the political guardian of the administration of justice” and “It is part of the special role of the Attorney-General to be active in the area of law reform and to secure government support for law reform initiatives”.

A key priority for me as Attorney-General in the ACT is promoting access to justice and facilitating the protection of the community through a human rights framework. A healthy justice system is one with systems in place to ensure fair trials, fair hearings and fair outcomes for all parties involved.

In order for our justice system to be fair, it must be cognisant of power imbalances both inside and outside the courtroom. Factors such as age, race, access to resources and experiences of abuse can mean that some of our fellow citizens are more vulnerable than others. By championing reforms in areas such as child sexual abuse, family violence, legal assistance, a drug and alcohol court and restorative justice and practices, this Government is committed to ensuring that our services correct inequality and support a cohesive community.

While providing the ACT with a justice system that brings together human rights, meaningful access to justice, redress and community safety is a challenge, it is enormously exciting and rewarding work. I know many of you here today are energised and engaged with work to achieve the best possible justice system. It is a responsibility we all have, and I have great confidence that, as officers of the Court, we will all follow through.

One of the Government’s most significant areas of work for 2018 is responding to and implementing recommendations from the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. We are actively participating in the development of the national redress scheme that will provide tangible redress for victims of child sexual abuse. These reforms provide an opportunity to break down structures of power that facilitated and protected abuse, and to recognise the impact of that abuse on survivors in a way that is restorative.

2018 will offer new and exciting opportunities to build on our shared achievements over 2017, which include significant reforms to the way family violence is handled in Court, new civil and criminal measures to combat sexual and family violence, and measured improvements across our statute book. While we will not always agree, I value the input of everyone who is working across our justice system to deliver fair and impartial services to this community.

The Government is proud of its election commitment to establish a Drug and Alcohol Court (DAC) in the Territory. Substance abuse has a strong link to criminal offending, and there is a large body of evidence that properly implemented drug courts are effective at reducing both reoffending and substance abuse.

The ACT Supreme Court has been working with key agencies in the justice system to develop proposals for consideration by the Government. This initiative is part of a range of reforms that will be aimed at helping the Government reach its target to reduce recidivism by 25 per cent by 2025.

The problem-solving approach of a DAC aims to bring about long-term behavioural change in offenders who are at a high risk of reoffending and who have multiple risk factors for criminal conduct, including severe addiction.

As our work on therapeutic justice and on improving our responses to domestic and family violence demonstrates, we cannot view each component of the justice system in isolation. Changes, and pressures experienced by one component will have flow on effects to all other stakeholders and the broader system.

Already in this term of government we have provided additional resources to the community legal centres, the DPP and Legal Aid reflecting that an accessible, transparent and timely justice system requires comprehensive investment. And the investment in the new Court building that is going up around us now is just one component of delivering a better justice system for Canberra.

I look forward to continuing to work together with our Judges, Magistrates, everyone who serves our justice system on what additional investments are needed, and how they should be progressed.

In the spirit working towards a justice system that is people-focused, I was pleased to receive a progress report from the ACT Law Reform Advisory Council on Canberra – becoming a restorative city in December. This report summarises creative ideas and input from the Canberra community about how we can make our community safer and more connected.

Restorative practices complement the justice system by empowering individuals and communities to make decisions about how to repair harm suffered, and how to replace what has been lost when there is a conflict.

This year I will be focusing on how our justice system can become even more accessible, transparent and timely by fostering restorative practices in the ACT.

As our community grows and evolves, there is always room for improvement. As First Law Officer of the Territory and as an elected member of this Government, I look forward to another year of robust debate, and working together as a community that is passionate about justice.  

Thank you, and happy new legal year to you all.