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Law Council of Australia Gala Dinner

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP
Speech

Introduction

Thank you to the Law Council of Australia for hosting this wonderful dinner, in celebration of a historic occasion.

I wish to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on and recognise any other people or families with connection to the lands of the ACT and region.

I wish to acknowledge and respect their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of this city and this region. I would also like to acknowledge and welcome other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may be attending tonight’s event.

I am delighted join you tonight with so many esteemed guests. In particular, may I acknowledge:

  • former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, the Hon Robert French AC 
  • the Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Australia, the Hon Debra Mortimer 
  • the Chief Justice of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia, the Hon Will Alstergren AO 
  • Senator Tammy Tyrrell 
  • other former and current members of the judiciary 

Thank you to President of the Law Council, Luke Murphy, for inviting me to speak tonight and congratulations and welcome to the incoming President Greg McIntyre SC.

History

It is ninety years since the Law Council of Australia was formed in 1933 in the wake of the Great Depression to speak on behalf of the entire Australian legal profession.

But the Council is now so much more than a peak body and has evolved to play an important role in policy making and advocating for a fair and just legal system.

As a former Director of the Council, and now as Attorney-General, I acknowledge how central your work is to providing the legal profession’s input into policy development and legislative processes. My door is always open to you.

Strengthening integrity within institutions

A key commitment the Labor Party made to the Australian people at the last election was to restore trust and respect in government by strengthening integrity within our institutions.

And no public institution is more integral to the rule of law than the courts and the judiciary.

Surveys show public trust and confidence in the administration of justice in Australia’s courts and legal system more broadly is high, but that is never something we should take for granted.

One of the first things I did upon coming to office was to instruct the Attorney-General's Department to fill current and emerging judicial vacancies in the federal courts using a merit-based selection process.

This involves extensive consultation with the legal community to identify suitable candidates. These include the heads of jurisdiction of the federal courts, the legal profession, and other key members of the legal community.

I’m pleased to say this new process is working extremely well, and we saw a large number of expressions of interest received for our recent judicial appointments processes.

A further step the Government is examining to ensure ongoing trust in the judiciary is by establishing a federal judicial commission.

As you all know, currently, complaints against federal court judges, including heads of federal jurisdictions and serving judges of the High Court, can only be considered by Parliament if they warrant consideration of removal from office on the grounds of proved misbehaviour or incapacity.

A judicial commission would provide a transparent and independent process for examining complaints about the conduct or capacity of federal judges.

The insights of the legal profession will be critical to ensuring any such body is not only constitutionally sound but would strengthen public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system.

Administrative Appeals Tribunal reform update

Before the end of this year the Government will introduce legislation for the most important reform of the federal system of administrative review in decades.

The legislation will establish a new administrative review body to be named the Administrative Review Tribunal, replacing the AAT.

The Albanese Government inherited a system of administrative review besieged by delays, financial instability and an extraordinary backlog of applications that has had a real cost to tens of thousands of Australians who rely on a mechanism to independently review government decisions.

In April, the Government opened public consultation on the new Tribunal’s design. Many of the 120 responses to the public issues paper and the conversations held with my department were from and with legal community representatives in this room including the Law Council, Community Legal Centres, legal aid and legal advocacy services.

In September this year, I announced some proposed key features of the new Tribunal. This included enhanced powers and adaptable procedures and ensuring swift resolution of cases in response to changing demands. There will also be a user-focused approach, simplifying application processes and prioritising non-adversarial methods to ensure universal access to high-quality review processes.

A central feature of the new Tribunal will be the transparent and merit-based appointment of all non-judicial members, which is essential to re-establishing and safeguarding the integrity of the administrative review system. In preparation for the new Tribunal, the Government is currently recruiting for non-judicial Deputy Presidents and Senior Members to the Tribunal.

I’m sure that some members of the audience today, or those known to them, would make highly credibly candidates for these roles. I encourage you to bring this opportunity to the attention of suitable individuals. Expressions of interest close on Monday the 11th of December and more information can be found on the Attorney-General’s Department website.

Your ongoing expertise and advocacy will continue to uphold the standards we seek to set with the new Administrative Review Tribunal. The new Tribunal must chart a course to become a cornerstone of justice and fairness in Australia’s administrative law landscape.

Family Law

One of the most significant reforms the Government is undertaking is in the area of family law.

In October this year two significant pieces of legislation were passed to make Australia’s family law system simpler, safer and more accessible for separating families and their children.

These changes provide a streamlined framework for making parenting decisions, while ensuring the courts have a much clearer picture of the safety risks that may be relevant.

My office identified over 20 separate inquiries into family law over the past decade which, time after time, were simply ignored.

Every time the issue came up, the former government simply commissioned another report, said nice things about the recommendations, then did nothing until the issue arose again and called another inquiry.

The reforms we have already made are the most significant in decades and I thank the Council for the extremely helpful and constructive approach you made to helping us get this right.

This is only the start. I recently released further draft legislation as part of the Government’s ongoing commitment to making the property decision-making framework of the Family Law Act simpler and safer for separating families. I appreciate your continued engagement in the development of these important reforms.

Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing

The Government is also working on reforms to Australia’s anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing regime that have particular relevance for everyone in this room.

This is yet another key reform that was left languishing by the former government for six years after being recommended way back in 2016 in the Report on the Statutory Review of the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act 2006.

Australia is now one of only five jurisdictions out of more than 200 that do not regulate the so-called tranche-two entities - lawyers, accountants, trust and company service providers, real estate agents, and dealers in precious metals and stones.

As a consequence of this failure Australia now risks being ‘grey-listed’ by the Financial Action Task Force which could result in significant harm to our economy.

No legitimate business wants to assist the laundering of money which funds serious crimes including terrorism, child abuse and the illicit drug trade and these long overdue reforms to Australia’s anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing will assist businesses to identify these risks in the course of providing their services.

Earlier this year we commenced a wide-ranging consultation process on proposed reforms to the regime.

Once again, I value the Council’s ongoing commitment to working closely with Government on these reforms and for the positive engagement to date on important issues such as a framework for protecting legal professional privilege under the regime.

Secrecy Provisions Review

Ten days ago I announced significant reforms to Commonwealth secrecy provisions which will see around 20 per cent of the existing 875 secrecy offences scrapped and ensure remaining secrecy offences are fit for purpose.

Secrecy offences play an important role in preventing the unauthorised disclosure of information which can undermine national security and harm the public interest. However, there have long been concerns about the number, inconsistency, appropriateness and complexity of Commonwealth secrecy offences.

The reforms will be implemented in two parts. First, the Government will work to introduce legislation to reduce the number of secrecy offences and introduce a new general secrecy offence to enable the further reduction of secrecy provisions and promote consistency.

Second, future secrecy laws will be developed in adherence with 12 principles for framing secrecy offences recommended by the Review.

I’d like to acknowledge the Council’s engagement in this process, which included a key submission to the Secrecy Provisions Review.

Legal Assistance Services

I will finish tonight by mentioning the tremendous contribution that the legal profession makes to the vital work of legal assistance services. This includes not only those employed in the legal assistance sector but also those in private practice who work pro bono or volunteer at community legal centres and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.

This is something that I feel very strongly about – the right of all Australians to have access to justice, no matter who they are.

This is why one of the very steps I took as Attorney-General was to remove the appalling gag clause introduced by the Abbott Government, which prevented Community Legal Centres from participating in law reform and advocacy.  CLCs are on the frontlines of the justice system, supporting our most vulnerable, and are uniquely placed to advocate for law reform.

As well as being able to freely advocate, funding is of course crucial and early next year the Government will receive the report of Warren Mundy’s Independent Review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership.

The current NLAP is a $2.4 billion agreement between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments to fund vital legal assistance services for the most vulnerable people in Australia.

With the current NLAP due to expire in 2025, this independent and transparent review will consider how future arrangements could better provide access to justice for all who need it.

But not all legal assistance is taxpayer funded, and a crucial aspect of ensuring the justice system is accessible is, of course, pro bono services.

Pro bono is a proud tradition in the legal sector and one I strongly encourage which is why I’ve instructed all the firms on legal services panels that they should be logging 35 hours per lawyer per year of pro bono work.

Many firms are meeting or exceeding the target but more can be done and we will now be publishing an annual league table of pro bono hours to encourage you all in this race.

Conclusion

In closing, I acknowledge that the legal profession undertakes a significant amount of work and serves an incredibly important role in promoting a just and fair society for all Australians. The Government sincerely thanks the Law Council of Australia for its valued contributions.

Thank you again for hosting this wonderful event and congratulations on your 90-year milestone.

[ENDS]