Friday, 11 May 2012

Stevie, other opposition MPs, Wonder about Part-Time Lawyers

Stevie, other opposition MPs, Wonder about Part-Time Lawyers

Plans to allow the head of the Victorian Law Reform Commission to work part-time came under fire in parliament last week.  Proposed changes to the Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 would allow the Attorney-General to appoint the chairperson in a full- or part-time capacity.

During the second reading of the bill on March 1, Attorney-General Robert Clark said “the amendment will create the potential for suitably qualified academic and expert candidates to contribute to the important task of law reform without having to sacrifice their existing careers”.

The Shadow Minister for Higher Education and Skills, Steve Herbert, said in parliament the work of government would be downgraded by a part-time chair.

“...If all you are interested in doing is tweaking little bits of law... a part-time chairperson is all you need. They can rock up a couple of hours a week...have a coffee and go home, but this is not our view of how the Victorian law reform commission should operate,” Mr Herbert said.

But during last week’s debate, the Opposition confirmed they would not oppose the bill.

The proposed legislation introduces five amendments. Reforms include expanding the powers of the president of the Children's Court of Victoria and modifying procedures for referral in the Magistrates Court. The fifth proposed change removes the requirement that the chairperson of the Victorian Law Reform Commission must be a full-time appointment.

Shadow Attorney-General Martin Pakula said the work of the Victorian Law Reform Commission is “too important for the position to be moulded to the needs of any individual”.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Don Nardella, agreed there may be a person willing to do the job on a part-time basis whilst holding another position, but this is not the “optimum situation”.

During the debate, State Member for Burwood, Graham Watt, said the Opposition should not be concerned because the proposed changes allow the appointment to be part-time or full-time. He argued that if a candidate who is only available part-time is the better choice, then that candidate should be appointed.

A source from the Victoria Law Reform Commission has confirmed that no one has been appointed to the position, and that the change would allow for more flexibility and a wider applicant pool.

Presently, the position is full-time and held by David Jones. Mr Jones was appointed in February 2012 when the previous commissioner, Professor Neil Rees, ended his term. Mr Jones served as a judge in the County Court for 25 years.

While proposing the reform, Attorney-General Clark commended the valuable work done by the commission under Professor Rees's leadership.  In May 2008, Rees handed down one of the Commission's most discussed reports, advising the Victorian Government on the decriminalisation of abortion.

According to the Victorian Law Reform Commission's website, the commission is a publicly-funded statutory authority that is committed to inclusive law reform independent of the political process.

On April 18, the Attorney-General appointed two new commissioners. Mr Saul Holt, Director of Criminal Law with Victoria Legal Aid, and Mr Bruce Gardner, who has had 30 years experience in the Crown Solicitor’s Office and the Office of Public Prosecutions.

The Chairperson and Commissioners are appointed for terms determined by the government. Currently, the Commission has five full-time and part-time Commissioners drawn from academia, the judiciary and the community sector.

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