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Wednesday, 23 August 1995
Page: 181

Mr TICKNER (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) (9.31 a.m.) —I move:

  That the bill be now read a second time.

It has become apparent that existing Commonwealth law does not adequately protect persons attending federal courts and tribunals. Currently police and other officers responsible for the safety of such persons do not have adequate protective powers to ensure a secure environment, particularly in circumstances where weapons and even explosive devices may be simply concealed in the clothing of a person, or in personal effects such as brief cases.

  The government considers that it would be proper to provide legislative powers to assist Commonwealth courts to maintain security and protect the safety of both court staff and persons attending proceedings. Comparable legislation was enacted in Victoria in 1980 and in Queensland in 1983.

  While Commonwealth courts have an inherent jurisdiction to control and protect persons in relation to proceedings, the scope is uncertain. Police have, for example, been unclear about their powers to assist in the removal of persons from Family Court premises. What powers are available to search persons entering a court for weapons? The Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act 1971 currently includes a statutory offence of refusing to leave Commonwealth premises without reasonable excuse when directed by a person with power to give such directions. This offence has limited application with respect to persons who are parties to court or tribunal proceedings—and who may have a `reasonable excuse' to disregard such an order—and it does not provide for associated security powers, such as searching for, and the detention of, firearms, explosive devices and offensive weapons.

  Legislative provisions are required to empower police and other authorised officials to take action in situations which raise a threat to the security of federal courts and tribunals. The amendments to the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act 1971 propose a scheme of protective security consistent with the electronic screening undertaken at the entrance to Parliament House and at airports but also allowing for `frisk' searches, in the nature of a `pat down' search. Such screening is designed to identify security risks, while associated powers allow authorised officers to direct persons to leave the premises.

  The possession of weapons in the court environment constitutes a serious threat to the ability of courts to function as a public forum. This is most apparent with respect to the Family Court. The sad history of violence directed at Family Court judges and those involved in such proceedings is a constant reminder that security is an issue that should be taken seriously.

  Although the legislation is the result of concerns emanating from events in the Family Court, the amendments can be applied to all federal courts or tribunals by regulation. The powers provided in the act will not be available to all federal courts and tribunals as a matter of course. Only such powers as are considered necessary by responsible officials having regard to the circumstances faced by a federal court or tribunal in a particular location will be available. This means that the identification and management of security requirements will be initiated by the court or tribunal itself. Regulations will be made only at the request of the court or tribunal.

  The security powers provided in the legislation will be exercised by authorised officers. This term is defined to include police officers as well as persons who are authorised by the Attorney-General or by courts empowered to administer their own affairs. This provision addresses the concern that police will have to be solely responsible for the implementation of various separate security regimes at diverse premises. By providing for the authorisation of court or security officers, responsible specifically for the security of particular sites, the police can be utilised more flexibly to deal only with serious breaches of security.

  Powers held by police and authorised officers may include requiring a person attending prescribed premises to provide his or her name, address, evidence of identity and a reason for being on the premises. The legislation makes it clear that a wish to attend the proceedings of the court is an acceptable reason, and access will be available unless the person has not complied with the security arrangements in place at that court or tribunal.

  The government is sensitive to criticism that exercise of the powers will discourage members of the public from attending court cases and thus undermine the principle that justice should be dispensed in public. I reiterate that the government is concerned to preserve the open and public administration of justice, whilst at the same time providing adequate protection to those participating in that administration.

  Australia has been fortunate that violent attacks upon our judicial system have been few and far between. Unfortunately, apart from the well-known incidents involving the Family Court, there have been occasions at the state and territory level where people have been injured or killed in court buildings. Furthermore, recent tragic events in Oklahoma City remind us of the fragility and vulnerability of our open society. Governments have a responsibility to take all reasonable steps to ensure the safety and security of those involved in our judicial system.

  Regulations will be made to govern the management of information gathered about persons attending court in accordance with the Privacy Act 1988. The government is aware that persons attending courts will be concerned about the possible uses of the information so gathered, and the regulations will address these concerns.

  Authorised officers are empowered to search persons by using screening devices—for example, devices similar to those which are commonly used at airports—and/or by using a frisk search, conducted by quickly running hands over the outer clothing. It is envisaged that the use of screening equipment will be employed in most cases. Frisk searches will only be undertaken by persons of the same sex. Persons may also be required to deposit personal effects reasonably capable of concealing a firearm, explosive substance or offensive weapon. This power may be utilised, for example, where the goods in question cannot be adequately searched or where the security requirements of a particular court or tribunal do not warrant the installation of electronic screening mechanisms.

  Although authorised officers are empowered to direct persons in breach of any requirement to leave the premises, enforcement of these requests can be made only by the police, in accordance with conditions set out in section 22 of the act. This promotes flexibility in the enforcement of security regulations at a basic level, by allowing courts themselves to determine appropriate security responses. It also ensures the involvement of the police in any potentially serious situation, where the person concerned refuses a lawful direction not to enter, or to leave, the premises.

  Four new offences have been created to assist with the enforcement of the provisions. It will be an offence to refuse or fail to give information, or to give false information, in response to a lawful request; to refuse or fail, without reasonable excuse, to submit to a required search or to deposit certain personal effects with an authorised officer; to refuse or fail to comply with a direction to leave court premises; or to bring any firearm, explosive substance or offensive weapon into prescribed premises without lawful excuse.

  The opportunity has also been taken to make a number of minor amendments, including updating the penalty provisions of the act. The removal of gender specific language and the updating of property valuations throughout the act have also been completed. It is hoped that the amendments will bring about a significant improvement in the provision of security services to Commonwealth courts and tribunals. With such measures in place, both staff and persons attending prescribed premises will be more confident of their safety. The amendments will have no significant financial impact. I commend the bill to the House.