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Attorney-General Jill Hennessy sees role as platform for reform and advocacy

Attorney-General Jill Hennessy sees role as platform for reform and advocacy

By Carolyn Ford

Access to Justice Courts 


Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy was just three days into her new job when the scandal that broke over Informer 3838 prompted the call for another royal commission, this one to investigate the breach of client confidentiality.

The new inquiry into the management of informants came on top of the state government’s royal commission into mental health and the federal government’s royal commissions into banking and finance (now finalised) and into aged care.

“People say royal commissions are a lawyers’ picnic. But some may argue that in the current climate of royal commissions it’s more like a seven-course degustation men,” she joked at the LIV’s Conference of Council earlier this week.

But she reminded the conference that while these inquiries would add to the pipeline of legal work, they also played an important role in examining important public policy issues.

“The purpose and power of royal commissions is that they give us a moment to stop and to take stock and to try to bring a sanitising light onto activities. From a political perspective they give us the opportunity to rethink and reset public policy and regulation.”

They also provide the opportunity to rebuild faith in public institutions. “And the lack of faith in public institutions is in my view something that presents a great threat to us as a civilised society.”

Coming from her four years as Health Minister, Ms Hennessy said she is no stranger to the kinds of “challenging and difficult issues that find their way onto the front pages of newspapers and that provide a fantastic platform for reform and advocacy”.

She is looking forward to doing the same in her new portfolio, she said. “I see my role as being an advocate on behalf of the justice system and being able to support those that are not in a position to support themselves in open political and media fora.”

“Our priority is ensuring that we have a fair and accessible and open and innovative justice system here in Victoria.”

With crime prevention minister Ben Carroll, she would be looking at ways to have a law and order debate that didn’t just focus on “the sentencing arc of the debate”.

“How do we look at better models around crime prevention? How do we align those with the corrections system, and how do we confront the unacceptably high rates of recidivism we still see in our state?”

“We will be looking at how we can align that with other areas of social reform as we have done in the area of family violence.”

That included the concept of “wrapping services around a particular cohort that requires multi-disciplinary services, trying to focus on the interventions that we know will make the difference, and making sure the government holds up their end of the bargain when it comes to investment”.

She called on the LIV to contemplate how it could contribute to these initiatives. "You bring a terrific reputation of being a respected entity that always engages in a fact-based and respectful manner."

"I am sure we are all motivated by a very noble commitment to a justice system that meets the needs of contemporary times and the future - and that is not clawed down by uncivilised debate and a fact-free world."

That involved tackling issues such as the “unfinished business” from Justice Frank Vincent’s Open Courts review amid concerns over the ubiquity of suppression orders in Victoria.

The use of suppression orders was motivated by very important principles of fairness and justice, she acknowledged, “but we now operate in an environment of international social media platforms and that brings great dilemmas for us”.

Among the possible solutions were judge-only trials, although she was aware that raised the risk that some people, “especially the well known and well-resourced” could shop around for justice.

She would also be looking at the committal system and recognised that “there will be many people in this room who have a great passionate contribution to make on how we may improve the committal system”.

But Ms Hennessy also pointed to the profession's need to improve its own workplace systems and structures to improve the mental health and wellbeing of its people.

“Within the legal sector we need to reflect upon what some of the demanding culture and long hours of work actually mean around mental health and wellbeing. While being cognisant of judicial and financial realities, I commend you to reflect on how you can conceive of better structures of work and support.”

Sexual harassment within the profession was also a significant issue. She commended the leadership and work and commitment of the LIV in this area, “but we should still not underestimate the prevalence of these matters in workplaces. There is a great hunger in making sure we are providing safe systems of work that are discrimination free”.

She was also a great advocate of diversity and ensuring the justice system reflects the community that it serves, not just in terms of gender but also in terms of background. She had seen greater cultural diversity in the senior cohorts of the medical profession than in the legal profession.

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