Justice Legislation Amendment

MR DIMOPOULOS (Oakleigh) (18:42:20) — It gives me great pleasure to speak on the Justice Legislation Amendment (Access to Justice) Bill 2018. This is an enormously important bill, and it is only one part of a system that we are reforming through investment and through legislative change. This is for all Victorians who value and respect the value of justice, but it is particularly also for vulnerable Victorians, who need access to justice perhaps more. I will touch on that
a bit later.

The Victorian Labor government values the rule of law and all people’s access to it. We value equality before the law, the right to counsel and the right to a fair trial. We value strong institutions, including the judiciary and the court system, but they are of no use if you cannot access them. There is no use having the most robust and strong institutions if citizens are locked out of them, and increasingly we have seen that some people are actually locked out of these institutions and access to justice. We are talking specifically about vulnerable Victorians — and all Victorians. We are talking about disadvantaged Victorians, who are what the member for Broadmeadows talked about — those who, through either lack of knowledge or funds or not having the life chances in their family or the community, have a much greater propensity to be brought before the criminal justice system or the justice system full stop and then have the onus to either represent themselves or find access to inexpensive or free legal counsel. The only way you can have a civilised society is if people at the most vulnerable stage of their life have access to the strong institutions that we hold up as evidence of a civilised society.

This bill does a lot of the things that we expect in terms of strengthening that access to justice. It might pay to quote just a bit from the Attorney-General’s second-reading speech because he outlines the problems very, very well. He says the review undertaken, which is what I was referring to:

… found significant goodwill and dedication among institutions and service providers in the justice system and the legal assistance sector, despite the many challenges the system faces. It also found that some important enablers of the system are weak. There is a lack of data, poor technology in many parts of the system, under-resourcing of legal assistance and related services and services that are not sufficiently integrated.

He also went on to say:

The government agreed, or agreed in part, to 57 of the 60 recommendations. In its response to the review, the government announced $34.7 million in new funding to help disadvantaged Victorians better access legal advice, support and information. The package was in addition to the $103.7 million provided to enhance the justice system and legal assistance services that was announced in the Victorian budget 2017–18.

There are a range of issues and problems in the system at the moment, and they were effectively encapsulated in those 60-odd recommendations.

What do we seek to do in this bill? Quite a number of things, including making significant changes to the Legal Aid Act 1978 and strengthening Victoria Legal Aid’s role in coordinating the provision of legal aid and legal assistance and information. We are also increasing the transparency and accountability of Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) by introducing new planning and reporting requirements, including a long-term strategic plan every four years, an annual corporate plan and quarterly performance reporting. It is quite odd that these things were not enshrined in law in the way they are here, and I think that is vitally important. We also seek to strengthen the skill base of the VLA board and change some governance arrangements that are not working in the best possible way currently.

We are also seeking to give more prominence to the Victoria Law Foundation, an excellent organisation. I have had a bit of interaction, through constituents and others, with the Victoria Law Foundation. For starters, its website is incredible in terms of making justice and law accessible to everyday Victorians, but we want to empower the organisation to become a centre of excellence and also to be part of the system that actually collects data and to be more robust in terms of the analytics it can provide back to government and policymakers about how we can further improve the system of access to justice.

We also seek to make several changes to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 1998 to enable mediators to conduct compulsory conferences across all lists at VCAT, which is one of the review recommendations, and a whole range of other changes.

I want to pick up on two points, one made by a colleague and a very robust, intelligent member, the member for Broadmeadows, who talked about this government’s investment in a coordinated strategy — I think he called it — in terms of investment to essentially bring a better life to people who are vulnerable so they do not necessarily come up before the justice system as often as they currently do.

Before I go to that I just want to pick up on the member for Hawthorn’s comments in relation to the cost of justice where, in what was effectively an example of tricky politics by the member, he talked about the fact that the cost of justice has gone up under our government. What he neglected to tell the chamber — the Parliament — was that the formula for how you work out the cost of justice is by effectively dividing the number of cases heard by the courts by the budget the courts have to run. This government, our proud Labor government, has increased the funding of every single jurisdiction in Victoria. What happens when you increase the funding? The cost per case of course — by function of the formula — goes up. If you have $1 million divided by 10 000 cases, you are going to have a lower cost per case than if you have $2 million divided by 10 000 cases. He was less than truthful in that contribution.

What was also less than truthful was his specific take on the crime rate. We all know that — and it is not just us saying this but the Crime Statistics Agency Victoria, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, any reasonable observer or any reasonable interested person including, may I say, the Chief Commissioner of Police at the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearings both last year and this year, who said clearly that we in Victoria have one of the lowest crime rates. I do not want to verbal him — his evidence is on the public record — but he did say that, and he specifically said we have the second-lowest youth crime rate in Australia after the Australian Capital Territory. But that does not suit the political agenda — the base, shallow political agenda — of those who want to be, but thank God are not, on the Treasury benches.

You have got that on one side, or you have got the fantastic contribution by people like the member for Broadmeadows, who encapsulated well the investment this government is making across an entire policy framework from TAFE access to investment in schools and three-year-old kinder — a whole bunch of those investments that governments can make to change the outcomes of people’s lives 10, 20 years down the track. They are the things you do. You try and help people before they fall off the cliff into the criminal justice system, not once they have fallen. Of course you need to do both, but if you look at the previous government’s pedigree, there was an increase in recidivism by 43 per cent under the watch of the member for Box Hill. Forty-three per cent — how is that for having a win on crime? So you incarcerate people, you send them back out and they commit offences — a 43 per cent recidivism rate. It is extraordinary. And they can boast about the crime rate, for God’s sake.

With this proud government, not only are we making the reforms that are necessary for access to justice across legal aid, we are extending the legal aid funding and we are making a more coordinated legal aid system so the taxpayer dollar has far more impact and reach. We are also empowering the sector to become a far better policy contributor through statistics and through a bit of nous in terms of the data they collect. But we are also making investments where they count, from kindergarten right through to TAFE. I was so proud of the announcement today by the Treasurer, the Premier and the Minister for Education that we are providing free access to 30 TAFE courses for Victorians — free access. Our youth apprenticeship programs are involved across all our major projects. This is a government that is proud of its investment for those across the whole of the Victorian community but particularly those who are most vulnerable. When we talk about access to justice, we talk about it in a 360-degree way, not just in the one-dimensional, ‘Oh my God, crime has gone up’ way, with the completely false information that is provided by the opposition. This is a great bill. I commend it to the house and look forward to its speedy passage.

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