What’s human rights got to do with it?

Back in January, we nominated one of our grant projects – the establishment of the Human Rights Law Centre – for Australia’s Top 50 Philanthropic Gifts, a celebration of our country’s most significant and influential gifts. The centre is a great example of what can be started and achieved with one of our grants. Now is your chance to have a say in the Public Choice Awards – Top 10 Philanthropic Gifts. Help us make sure the Human Rights Law Centre is recognised in the top ten. To vote, visit http://www.probonoaustralia.com.au/top-50-philanthropic-gifts. Meantime, here’s a little reminder about what the centre does and why their work is important.

Victoria Law Foundation

Tomorrow as a part of Law Week, Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, Hugh de Kretser, will get up on his soapbox and have a good rant about Selectivity in Australia’s Human Rights Protection. It’s a free lunchbox/soapbox session at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, so come along and bring your lunch: 12:45pm – 1:15pm, Thursday 16 May 2013.

As a preview Hugh spoke to us about the work of the Human Rights Law Centre and his vision for human rights in Australia.

What does the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) do?
We protect and promote human rights in Australia and through Australian foreign policy. We do this though a combination of evidence-based advocacy, strategic litigation, research and education.

What was your background before joining the HRLC?
I started my career in corporate law at Mallesons, but for the past decade I’ve been working in community legal…

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Law reform in the spotlight

Attorney-General Robert Clark MP in the crowd at the Law Oration 2012

Attorney-General Robert Clark MP in the crowd at the Law Oration 2012

Victorian Attorney-General, the Honourable Robert Clark MP, was in the crowd at last year’s Law Oration. This year it’s his turn to take to the stage to share his views on law reform in Victoria. Book today to make sure you nab a seat at the Law Oration 2013 on 3 October and encourage your colleagues and the people in your local community to do the same. Everyone can participate in law reform and this event is your chance to better understand the issues and join the debate.

In the meantime, this guest blog by the Victorian Law Reform Commission will bring you up-to-date with what’s happening in law reform, and the role of the Commission, the Attorney-General and the community in this process.

Law reform for all Victorians

Anyone who comes into contact with the law knows that the law is not perfect. Sometimes laws can be out-of-date, inefficient, unduly complex, or out of touch with the lives of real people.

Values change. Community standards change. Technology alters our lives in ways once unimaginable. Sometimes, laws don’t do the job they were supposed to do. When that happens, the law needs to be reformed.

Over the last ten years we have seen changes to the laws around adoption of children conceived through assisted reproductive technology, abortion decriminalised in Victoria, a massive increase in the use of public and private surveillance devices – and much more.

All of the above have been the subject of reviews by the Victorian Law Reform Commission, which is the main agency responsible for advising the Victorian government on law reform. The Victorian community had extensive input into all these reviews.

The Commission’s principal work is the fulfilment of references made by the Attorney-General. The Commission also undertakes community law reform projects, which it initiates, often based on suggestions from the public or community organisations. These projects are of more limited scope, as required by legislation.

The Commission has a full-time chair and seven part-time Commissioners, all people of great legal experience. They are supported by a staff of around 15, who provide research, policy, communications and administration support.

The Commission aims to be inclusive, independent and innovative.

Inclusive means that when the Commission reviews a law or set of laws, it doesn’t just consult lawyers and professionals, but consults widely with the community. We seek the views of all Victorians, regardless of where they live (city or country), age, cultural background or socio-economic status. Anyone can make a submission to the Commission, which will be taken into account when the recommendations are written.

Independent means that the Commission’s recommendations are independent of government, the courts and interest groups.

Innovative means being open to new ideas and approaches, while also staying aware of past approaches and solutions and knowing what works.

The Commission conducts reviews of civil and criminal law, across a wide range of areas, making recommendations that are relevant, succinct and achievable. However, the Commission does not itself change the law – that is up to the government of the day, which chooses when and how to act on the Commission’s recommendations.

The Commission recently completed a major reference on succession laws and delivered the report to the Attorney-General. Two other references are well advanced: our review of the Crimes (Mental Impairment and Unfitness to be Tried) Act 1997 and jury empanelment. As part of our jury empanelment consultations, we are keen to hear from people who have been called for jury service, so if that is you, please email the Commission.

A community law reform report on birth registration and birth certificates was delivered to the Attorney-General in July 2013.

The Commission gives close attention to education, particularly in schools and in regional and rural Victoria. Presenters visit schools to speak on unit 3 of the VCE curriculum – law-making – and join with Victoria Law Foundation in the twice-yearly presentation of Law Talks to rural and regional year 11 and 12 students.

The Commission’s work contributes to building a fair, just, inclusive and accessible legal system for all Victorians. The Commission is governed by the Victorian Law Reform Commission Act 2000.

Find out more from the Victorian Law Reform Commission about how you can get involved in law reform, by suggesting a project or making a submission.

The Attorney-General’s oration will be followed by a QA session, facilitated by Victoria Law Foundation Chair the Honourable P.D. Cummins, who is also Chair of the Victoria Law Reform Commission. Book your seat at the oration on 3 October 2013.

When is duplication okay?

Every Christmas we are bombarded with information about how we should behave over the festive season. Much of this is about safety – drink in moderation, be safe on the roads, swim between the flags, how to survive Christmas day with the in-laws. It’s also often about our legal rights as consumers or employees such as knowing when are you entitled to a refund or exchange or your right to holidays or overtime.

 Sometimes you will hear the same message over and over again from different sources, so why the duplication? Executive Director Joh Kirby tells us about efforts to better coordinate legal information in Victoria.

“Last week the Attorney-General Robert Clark convened a working group to consider how the legal sector could better collaborate on online resources. The aim was commendable. In essence, he wanted to look at how to reduce duplication of effort and resources, and increase the quality of services to the public.

The spectre of the forum made me start thinking about why duplication exists.

In one view of the perfect world, life for the information seeker would be easy: one source of information with answers to everyone’s legal questions, available right here on your computer at the push of a button. But take a glance out of the window or a stroll down the street and it becomes clear that we are not a homogenous society. Different cultural backgrounds, age, education and literacy levels can all have an impact on the type of information that we need and want, and where and how we seek it out. And so duplication of information often serves an essential purpose.

But what about when there is no purpose to duplication? When it happens as a result of poor coordination or when organisations get wrapped up in themselves and lose sight of what their audience wants.

Better using existing information sources and expanding information-sharing forums will help to improve coordination. But it takes a commitment by organisations to bring about change in this area. Perhaps the first step for all organisations is to look to see what others are doing before embarking on a project. Organisations need to ask themselves: does anyone else produce this information, should my organisation do it and why, and could we collaborate to better serve the needs of our audience?

In the arena of legal information, the focus should firmly be on how we can best provide the legal information that people want, when, where and how they want it. Having this focus can bring you into conflict with people whose primary concern is to protect an organisation’s position in the marketplace. Focusing on the audience may sometimes mean sharing information to make it more widely available (even if it results in less clicks to your website!), taking a back step on an issue, and not viewing websites primarily as a marketing tool but rather as a means of providing information to the public.

The outcome from the forum was positive and I suspect it made us all look a little bit closer at how we approach our work.

A working group is to be established in 2013, which will include a range of individuals and organisations from across the sector. While the Attorney-General has his work cut out, with the right attitude and commitment, this is a working group that could really improve the way we help Victorians who need legal information and services.”

Stay committed to plain language

Cleaning out some files a few weeks ago, we uncovered a Ministerial statement on plain language by the then Attorney-General the Hon. J.H. Kennan, MLC. This statement was a key step forward for plain language in Victoria.

There’s no doubt that a lot has changed since it was published in the 1985 but we’ve still got a long way to go.

On the eve of International Plain Language Day, Victoria Law Foundation is urging the legal profession and government to remain committed to the use of plain language to help Victorians understand the law and the legal system.

In a media release today, our Executive Director Joh Kirby recognised the role Australia – and in particular Victoria – has played in plain language legal drafting. But she acknowledged that more needed to be done to stamp out complex, convoluted and inaccessible language at every stage of the legal process. Read the full release.

Happy International Plain Language Day!