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Radio interview – ABC RN Breakfast

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP


Subjects: Violence against women, legal assistance, changes to the Family Law Act coming into effect, NZYQ cohort.

HOST, SALLY SARA: Federal, state and territory governments are continuing to look for ways to prevent violence against women and children. Last week of course, the Prime Minister hosted a special National Cabinet meeting, followed by a meeting of Police Ministers with the Attorney-General on Friday. Already some funds have been pledged to extend payments for women trying to escape violence and bail laws are being discussed. But advocates say that the changes don't go far enough. Mark Dreyfus is the Federal Attorney-General and joins me now, Attorney-General welcome back to RN Breakfast.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL MARK DREYFUS: Thanks very much for having me, Sally and good morning to your listeners.

SARA: Attorney-General, the Women's Legal Services Australia says that around 52,000 women were turned away from their services last year. You've had a review of funding for legal services, how much more support can government give to those kinds of services and when will it be provided?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Of course it's the case Sally that women's legal services, like the entire community legal centre sector are under enormous pressure. And legal assistance is vital to ensuring access to justice and equality before the law for all Australians. It's especially vital for women fleeing family violence. We've had a review done of the current five-year National Legal Assistance Partnership. That's the partnership between the states and the Commonwealth which expires in June next year. I'm right now considering that review, I'll have more to say about it soon, but of course we recognise the tremendous work that's done by women's legal services.

SARA: In the case of natural disasters often funding is provided quickly for people who are in crisis or have nowhere to stay, is any option similar to that being considered to get more money into these services now?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I know about the great work done by legal services. I acknowledge the pressure that they're under. We've got a five-year agreement between the Commonwealth and the states. I'm going to do as much as I can in the context of that agreement having more than another year to run and the need to make arrangements that fit between the Commonwealth and the states.

SARA: But if those kind of figures of unmet need occurring now, rather than waiting for this five-year agreement to expire, is there acknowledgement from you that more funding is needed now, otherwise that's a thousand women a week who don't get that service right now?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'm not going to pre-empt the Budget and I'm not going to pre-empt the discussions that are ongoing right now between me and state and territory Attorneys-General about what the future shape of access to justice looks like in Australia. We've had years and years of chronic underfunding under the former government. I've made some small improvements since we've come to office but it is about major change that's needed in the sector and that involves discussions between the Commonwealth and the states. Those are ongoing. I've had a review done, we'll be releasing that review in coming months.

SARA: Let's have a look at another associated issue and this is the Privacy Act. The government will be putting forward changes in August this year. Alcohol campaigners are very concerned about the way that alcohol companies are able to target high risk consumers by using their data and they're highlighting the connection in the way that that can sometimes escalate situations when it comes to domestic violence. Should alcohol companies be banned from accessing people's data in that way?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think we've got to have serious reform of the way in which private information, personal information that is held by companies is able to be used for the benefit of companies and not for the benefit of the people whose personal data it is. That's why we are going to bring forward the most major reform to the Privacy Act in a generation. It's going to happen in early August. It'll give all Australians more control over their personal information. It'll introduce more control over the use that can be made of personal information by companies. It's also going to have impact for women experiencing domestic and family violence because it'll give them greater control and transparency over their personal information. It's long past time we brought the Privacy Act into the digital age.

SARA: This week, your family law amendments have come into effect and you're working on another round of family law legislation that could make courts consider domestic violence in determining separation of assets. What options are being looked at there?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Just before we pass over the reforms that came into effect this week, which we passed last year, these are the most significant reforms to the Family Law Act in a generation. They're going to make Australia's family law system simpler and safer and easier for separating families. They're going to, in particular, make it clear that the best interests of the children should be at the centre of all parenting decisions that are made inside or outside the courtroom. There's going to be new information sharing that will give courts access to the full picture of family violence. It'll mean that Family Law Courts can order information from state and territory police and child protection and firearms agencies that relate to family violence or child abuse and neglect so they can better assess risk. That's all really important reforms. And we're moving on from there to a second stage of legislation, so that for the first time, family violence will be able to be considered as an important factor in property disputes. And we're consulting on the legislation. It’s going to send a clear signal that the government understands the long term harm caused by family violence, and the need for its consequences to be taken into account in property settlements. I acknowledge, everyone in the government acknowledges, Sally, that there's more work to be done. But we've done quite a lot already and I wouldn't want to pass over the changes to the Family Law Act that have come into effect this week.

SARA: Attorney-General, let's take a look at another issue for the government. Last week a former detainee whose ankle bracelet had been removed allegedly attacked an elderly couple. We've seen the photos in particular of the lady who was attacked in that incident. The Community Protection Board recommended that the bracelet be removed but the Home Affairs Minister says the Board is not independent from government. Why did they make that call? Why did the Board make that call?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: This matter is before the courts Sally. Our thoughts go to the victim of what is obviously a distressing and terrible attack. But I'm not going to comment on a matter where someone has been charged, I'm not going to go to the detail, and that's where it sits. And it should be like that, I'm the first law officer of the Commonwealth. I can't be commenting on a matter where someone's been charged and they're going to come before a criminal trial.

SARA: The independence of the Board is not before the courts, we've had the comments from Clare O'Neil which seem to contradict the Prime Minister's view that the Board was independent. Is the Board independent?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'm going to leave those comments where they are. The purpose of having a board of experts is so that independent expertise can be brought to bear on the sometimes difficult decisions of what are appropriate conditions on someone who is in the community, or indeed as I understand the other function of the board, preparing applications and deciding on whether to bring an application before the court for someone to go into a form of preventative detention. And there's a need for expert opinion to be brought to bear on that.

SARA: Are they independent?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'm not sure exactly why this distinction matters. I'm trying to describe the function of this Community Protection Board which is to assist in making the difficult decisions about what conditions should be placed on someone who is in the community. It's the same as the kinds of decisions that are made by parole boards at the state level when deciding on conditions to be placed on someone who has been released from detention.

SARA: When you're talking about why not understanding whether it matters, isn't this an issue of accountability with the decision of this Board, because in this case, a woman has been significantly injured in an incident.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: And that's shocking, Sally. It is completely shocking. Our sympathies go to the victim of this assault.

SARA: But you won't give clarification on who's ultimately responsible for that decision on the bracelet?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The legislation speaks for itself and anyone can go and read the legislation can see the way in which this Community Protection Board operates.

SARA: Is that a yes or no?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: As I say, I think what we've got to focus on here is the importance of bringing expert opinion to bear on difficult questions of what conditions should be placed on someone who is in the community. Who needs to be controlled in some way and the even more difficult questions that arise when a decision is made to make an application to a court for someone to be placed in preventative detention which is a fairly unusual step to take something that legislation exists for high-risk terrorisk offenders, which I'm in charge of, where I act on advice from experts and lawyers about whether or not an application should be made to a court for preventative detention. And a similar regime has been put in place by the Australian Parliament in respect of the group of former detainees that we're talking about here.

SARA: Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, thank you very much for your time this morning.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thanks very much.