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Tuesday, 19 May 1970

Mr HUGHES (Berowra) (AttorneyGeneral) - by leave - Honourable members will recall that in my recent second reading speech explaining the Parliamentary Counsel Bill I indicated that I had under consideration proposals affecting other areas of work in my Department. One area to which 1 have been giving particular attention concerns law reform in the Australian Capital Territory, and I take this opportunity to inform the House of some decisions the Government has made to further this important work. The need for law reform is, of course, by no means confined to the Australian Capital Territory. Throughout the world governments are recognising that it is not enough to direct all of their legislative efforts towards the enactment of laws designed to implement political concepts. It is generally recognised that there is, in addition, a need for constant review of existing laws, particularly those upon which basic juristic principles and institutions depend. Otherwise, experience has shown that it is only a matter of time before those laws become inadequate to meet the needs of a fast developing and increasingly sophisticated society.

In recent years the Government has given close and continuing attention to the need for law reform in the Australian Capital

Territory. After reviewing the problem in 1965, the Government approved the creation within the 4 responsible departments, namely, the Department of the Interior, the Attorney-General's Department, the Department of Health and the Treasury, of special groups of officers to be assigned exclusively to the task of reviewing the laws of the Territory and to keeping those laws up to date.

While the Government concluded that the responsibility for the work of ACT law reform should rest with the responsible departments, it decided that arrangements should be made for consultation on matters of a specialist or technical nature to take place with informed sections of the community. For the co-ordination of the efforts of the 4 responsible departments an interdepartmental co-ordinating committee was established. These decisions of the Government have been implemented. Departmental staffs have been strengthened by the creation of groups of officers to undertake law reform work for the Territory. There has been consultation with bodies such as the Australian Capital Territory Advisory Council, the Law Society of the Australian Capital Territory, the Australian Capital Territory Bar Association and the Australian National University. Other bodies have been consulted in relation to particular matters in which they have had a special interest, and in some projects assistance has been obtained from particular persons with special knowledge or experience. 1 am pleased to be able to say that much has been accomplished under these arrangements. The task of reforming the law is inevitably a painstaking one, and progress cannot always be achieved at the rate that may be felt to be desirable. Nevertheless, there has been good progress in the Australian Capital Territory under the arrangements now operating. I shall not take the time of honourable members to indicate all the matters that have become the subject of legislation. But the House will, 1 think, be interested to know that since 1967 my own Department has been responsible for some 30 significant ordinances of a law reform nature - some of them representing quite major projects. For example, these ordinances include: An ordinance providing for the interpretation of Territory ordinances and statutory instruments: a juries ordinance providing for all aspects of jury service and, in particular, for women to serve on juries; an ordinance making comprehensive provision with respect to maintenance of wives, husbands and children; a new Wills Ordinance; ordinances enabling married persons to sue each other in tort; a number of amendments to the Court of Petty Sessions Ordinance; an ordinance facilitating the transfer of marketable securities; a new Family Provision Ordinance - to ensure that the family of a deceased person receive adequate provision out of his estate; an ordinance enabling a person between the ages of 18 and 21 years to borrow on the security of a mortgage of his home; amendments to the Administration and Probate Ordinance; and amendments to the Real Property Ordinance.

Several other major projects have reached an advanced stage and legislation will shortly be forthcoming. In this connection, I would mention, first, the proposed legislation concerning strata or unit titles which has been prepared by a specially appointed working group comprising an officer from my Department, an officer from the Department of the Interior, a university professor of law, and a legal practitioner with extensive conveyancing experience. The present position with respect to this legislation is that the comments of interested bodies to which the draft was circulated for comment have only recently been received and are now being examined.

Another project at an advanced stage is the proposed Legal Practitioners Ordinance to replace the Ordinance disallowed last year by the Senate. Since assuming office 1 have given close attention to this important legislation and have had the benefit of discussion with representatives of the 2 professional bodies representing lawyers in the Territory. I am pleased to be able to say that a printed draft of the proposed Ordinance has just been forwarded for comment to those 2 bodies and to the Advisory Council. It should now be possible to have the Ordinance made in the very near future. The preparation of a new Criminal Code for the Territory has been a particularly big task, in which I have been very considerably assisted by the Law Council of Australia. Here again, the views of interested bodies have been sought. Some have been received and are being examined. I would mention also that a new Evidence Ordinance for the Territory is in its final stage of preparation. Helpful comments on a printed draft of the proposed Ordinance have been obtained from interested professional bodies and I expect that the Ordinance will be made very shortly.

From what I have said honourable members will appreciate that the task of law reform for the Australian Capital Territory is being actively pursued. I should like to acknowledge at this point my predecessor's interest in this work. He was active in exploring possible new ways of advancing the work. During his term of office the Attorney-General's Department was reorganised so as to involve more directly in the work senior officers of the Department able to provide guidance to the special groups of officers established in 1965. Experience has shown that such direct involvement of senior officers is particularly desirable, and my Department is accordingly about to submit to the Public Service Board proposals for a further reorganisation in which the emphasis will be still further in the direction of committing the work of Territory law reform to officers at suitable levels who will be free from conflicting duties in the federal sphere.

The Government has hitherto taken the view - to which it still adheres - that it should not abdicate its responsibility for legislation involving significant policy considerations by referring proposals for such legislation to an outside body such as a law reform commission. In recent years there has been pressure from various quarters for the establishment of a law reform commission, but having regard, amongst other things, to the extent to which policy. The Government's view in this in Territory reform projects, the Government has felt it more appropriate that these projects should be handled by the departments responsible for the policy. Having recently given the matter further consideration, the Government sees no reason for taking a different view in regard to projects involving significant questions of policy. The Government's view in this regard is, I might say, in complete accord with views expressed in the course of discussion of the subject of law reform at a conference of Australian and New Zealand

Law Ministers held at Wellington on 26th February this year. At that conference, however, there was general agreement that law reform commissions and similar bodies can assist materially in the reform of those areas of the law that do not involve significant policy. To give just a few illustrations I mention the law of conveyancing, the law of defamation and the law governing the time within which legal proceedings must be instituted after the cause of action has accrued.

The Government has accordingly decided to establish a law reform commission for the purpose of supplementing the work of the departments concerned in reviewing and reforming the law of the Australian Capital Territory. The Commission will be presided over by a full-time chairman with very senior qualifications in the law. The Government has in mind that the chairman would if possible be a person with the status of Supreme Court judge. There will, in addition, be certain part-time members of the Commission and an appropriate supporting staff.

At the discussion at Wellington to which I have referred there was general agreement that the work to be undertaken by a law reform commission and the priority to be accorded to particular projects should be a matter for decision by the Government and this will be the position with respect to the law reform commission to be established for the Australian Capital Territory. All references of matters to the commission will, in fact, be made by the AttorneyGeneral and the commission will forward its reports to the Attorney-General. The reports of such a body will, of course, be most valuable documents and honourable members may rest assured that the Government will treat them as such, lt goes without saying that the ultimate decision on to the implementation of any report will be a matter for the Government. This represents no departure from common practice.

Mr Speaker,1 have indicated the Government's decision to establish a law reform commission for the Territory and the basic principles that will be applied in establishing it. There are, of course, certain matters of detail that still need to be worked out but honourable members may rest assured that these matters will he attended to as expeditiously as possible. 1 believe that the com mission will make an important contribution to the development of the Australian Capital Territory.

I present the following paper:

Law Reform for the Australian Capital Territory - Ministerial Statement, I9th May 1970.

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