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Monday, 30 May 1994
Page: 861

Senator PATTERSON (5.14 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the report.

I wish to speak only briefly on this important report of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on gender bias and the judiciary. At the outset, I would like to say that I was particularly pleased when this inquiry was established. As the committee acknowledges in its report, for too long the public has seen important questions about whether the judiciary fails to understand gender issues bandied about in the media, often without a detailed appreciation of the complex issues involved and, as my studies show, sometimes out of context.

  Rather than having the media leading the debate on these issues, it is important for informed bodies to investigate these matters. Just as I was pleased to see the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs take up this inquiry, I also welcome the work that the Australian Law Reform Commission has been doing on women's equality before the law.

  In part, this work has been recognised by the committee, which has recommended that the Australian Law Reform Commission identify areas of substantive law which require amendment to remove residual gender bias. Page 123 of the report says:

Evidence before the Committee drew attention to the need, in a formal way, to identify legislation and precedent decisions which might require amendment because of their discriminatory potential.

The Australian Law Reform Commission is obviously the most suitably qualified body to conduct this review and I look forward to the government acting on the committee's recommendations.

  I would also like to draw the attention of honourable senators to a number of other recommendations in the report and the discussion surrounding them. Just as the committee's report acknowledges a number of ways in which a lack of awareness of gender issues might manifest itself—for example, in sentencing, in the treatment of counsel and witnesses, and in summings-up—it also recognises that there are a number of ways in which they can be addressed. I am particularly encouraged by the recommendations dealing with the role of the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration in conducting voluntary judicial education courses.

  While education is one way of combating judicial bias, it is important that it is voluntary and does not threaten the independence of the judiciary. By nominating a body such as the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration to conduct voluntary programs addressing the issue of gender awareness and aspects of judging, the committee has recognised the importance of ensuring that a body with the respect of the courts undertakes this important role. The recommendation dealing with the establishment of a chief justices council to consider complaints against judicial offices is also a sound proposal and would do much to maintain public confidence in the judiciary and the court system as a whole.

  The committee's report also makes a number of key recommendations about the role of the media. While there is a legitimate educative role to be played by the media, the committee has recognised that media reporting has varied from `accurate and responsible' in some instances to `sensational' in others. The committee identified a very real need for journalists and subeditors to receive legal education and recommends that only reporters with a thorough understanding of the operation of the courts be engaged to report on them.

  I welcome the recommendations that deal with these issues and I call on those in the media who are responsible for and capable of bringing about change in this area to pay attention to those recommendations which cannot be implemented by government but which are a message to the community—including the judiciary and the media—that attention needs to be paid to this very significant area.

  Finally, I would like to commend the committee for the work it has done on this report. The committee has produced a valuable and considered report with a number of key recommendations affecting not only the federal government but also the judiciary, the media and other sections of the community. I hope that the federal government gives the report the attention it deserves; that the media give the report the attention it deserves, not only in reporting it but also in acting on its recommendations; and that the community gives it the attention it deserves.