When staff members of the Victorian Law Reform Commission visit schools and other community groups to explain our work, we are often asked ‘What changes to the law have resulted from your reports?’ The fact that the VLRC has recommended reforms to the law does not necessarily mean that the law will change. However, over the life of the VLRC—12 years in its current form—we have seen significant reforms in several areas in response to our recommendations.
The VLRC conducts enquiries into issues referred to us by the Attorney-General. We are currently working on two projects: Succession Laws, and Crimes and Mental Impairment. Our current community law reform project is considering barriers to birth registration and obtaining a birth certificate. Projects completed in recent years include Guardianship (2012), Sex Offenders Registration (2011), Protection Applications in the Children’s Court (2010), Surveillance in Public Places (2010) and Jury Directions (2009). All the Commission’s publications can be viewed at www.lawreform.vic.gov.au.
After we have completed our final report containing recommendations for reform, we present it to the Attorney-General who tables it in Parliament, and at this point the VLRC’s involvement is at an end. However we follow with interest the progress on implementation of our recommendations.
It has been pleasing to note that in late 2012 and 2013, the government has introduced new legislation into Parliament reforming the law of jury directions, which draws extensively on the VLRC’s 2009 report.
In January 2008, the Attorney-General asked the VLRC to consider the law concerning directions given by judges to juries in criminal trials. In the opinion of many judges, other members of the legal profession and the public, the law required reform. In some cases, over-complex directions were causing delays in the court system and making juries confused. Unnecessary appeals and retrials occurred because of perceived errors in the directions, causing further delays, as well as distress to victims, witnesses and others involved.
In June 2009 we delivered our report, including 52 recommendations aimed at clarifying the law of jury directions, leading to directions that were clearer, shorter, and intended to result in less lengthy trials, more just verdicts and fewer appeals. Substantial work was then done by the Jury Directions Advisory Group of the Department of Justice and by the Hon. Justice Weinberg who led the Simplification of Jury Directions project.
In December 2012, Attorney-General Robert Clark announced new legislation to shorten and simplify jury directions based on the VLRC’s recommendations and other jury direction reviews. The bill provides guiding principles for judges, clarifying and simplifying what they need to explain to juries. One element of the new law is that judges will only be expected to provide a succinct summing up of the evidence, rather than recounting all the evidence in detail.
To give another example, the VLRC’s Civil Justice Review (2008) helped to shape the new Civil Procedure Act 2010 (Vic) which came into force on 1 January 2011. This Act reformed the law relating to civil proceedings to facilitate the “just, efficient, timely and cost effective” resolution of disputes, and applies to all civil proceedings in the Supreme, County and Magistrates’ Courts. The changes encouraged a move towards a less adversarial approach to civil litigation by resolving disputes before they reach court, including through alternative dispute resolution.
Our report on the Law of Abortion (2008) resulted in a significant and historic reform. We took account of more than 500 submissions and 30 community consultations in order to clarify and reflect public sentiment on the matter. We recommended that Section 10 of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic) should be repealed, and that other sections of the Act referring to abortion should be amended. Effectively this resulted in the decriminalisation of abortion in Victoria in October 2008.
Our references often require us to investigate issues where technological developments necessitate new legislative responses. In 2002, the Attorney-General asked the VLRC to consider laws governing access to reproductive technology, including how the law should recognise parents and how surrogacy should be regulated. More than 750 submissions were received. The Assisted Reproductive Technology & Adoption: Final Report (2007) included 130 recommendations designed to meet the needs of children born through ART, and to develop an inclusive approach to regulating assisted reproductive technology and adoption.
The government implemented many of these recommendations in the Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act 2008 (Vic) (ART Act) which came into operation on 1 January 2010. The implementation of the ART Act makes it illegal to discriminate against a person on the basis of their sexual orientation, marital status, race or religion. For example, under the previous legislation the law governing Victorian women's access to IVF was limited by eligibility requirements. A woman who did not have a male partner had to be deemed clinically infertile to be eligible for treatment.
In all the projects undertaken by the Victorian Law Reform Commission, we conduct extensive research, consult with experts and people affected by the law, and invite and take into account public submissions which can run into the hundreds. Ultimately this approach has resulted in recommendations in dozens of areas, which have influenced and assisted governments to embark on reforms that have modernised the law and benefitted Victorians.