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National Law Week: 13-18 May.

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13 May 2001



National Law Week, which begins today, is an annual event that aims to increase awareness of the legal system and the role of lawyers.

This year, one of the themes of National Law Week is access to justice and people with disabilities. It is an opportunity to focus on the way in which Australia’s legal system impacts on all of our lives. It also provides an opportunity to consider the recent debate on whether we need a bill of rights to protect our human rights.

My view is that Australia does not need a bill of rights. We already have strong laws to protect our human rights and independent institutions which ensure that those laws are upheld. Most importantly, we have a system of democratic government which fundamentally protects the rights and freedoms that we are fortunate enough to take for granted.

One of the best guarantees of individual rights and freedoms is the existence of autonomous and effective democratic institutions. Australia has an independent judiciary. We have a system of representative and responsible government, certain important constitutional guarantees, explicit protections in legislation including specialised human rights legislation, and protections in the common law. Our democratic institutions hold governments accountable. They limit potential abuses of power. They support a democratic civil culture. They protect and promote human rights.

A bill of rights is not a panacea for all evils. It does not of itself change behaviour or attitudes. A bill of rights does not assist in working out how best to protect the rights of individuals. The literacy and numeracy of indigenous children will not improve because of a bill of rights. It will not improve the accessibility of our public transport systems to people with disabilities. Practical action is required to improve the situation of our most vulnerable.

Parliaments make laws in this country. In doing so, they make decisions about how competing rights and freedoms, including those of the community at large, are to be balanced. A bill of rights would enmesh our courts deeply in political issues.

I believe that a bill of rights would do little to improve the practical enjoyment of rights and freedoms in Australia that we already take for granted.

It is not necessary to make fundamental changes to our legal and constitutional system in order to restate

those rights, for example that every person has the right to life, to be free from arbitrary or unlawful arrest and detention, not to be tortured or not to be held in slavery. It would do little to foster a world class system of democratic institutions which already ensure that our rights and freedoms are protected.


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