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Legacy of compassion

Legacy of compassion


Practice & Procedure 

The Hon Philip Cummins’ tireless contribution to modernising Victorian law will have a lasting impact.

The Hon Philip Cummins, who died in February, will be remembered for many contributions to the law as QC, judge, and after leaving the bench. His work The Hon Philip Cummins’ tireless contribution to modernising Victorian law will have a lasting impact.

The Hon Philip Cummins, who died in February, will be remembered for many contributions to the law as QC, judge, and after leaving the bench. His work in the area of law reform will be a lasting part of his legacy. As chair of the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) from 2012 to 2019, he led it through 14 inquiries covering a wide range of criminal and civil matters. A further three inquiries were in progress at the time of his death. To all of these he provided intellectual leadership with a strong sense of compassion.


Important reforms

Throughout his career as a judge and afterwards, Philip maintained a profound concern for the wellbeing of victims in our legal system. In his address on retiring from the bench in 2010, he said: “The even hand of justice requires that victims properly be acknowledged and properly be respected”. This came through in the recommendations made by the VLRC in its major 2016 report The Role of Victims of Crime in the Criminal Trial Process. After listening to the views of many victims, Philip concluded: “the overwhelming – not universal – response of victims to the VLRC’s inquiry was dismay at how poorly they were treated in the trial process; how they were not acknowledged or respected; how they were demeaned; how they were retraumatised; and how they were not participants.”

The VLRC’s key recommendations were that victims should be regarded as participants in the criminal trial process, with an inherent interest in the proceedings, and should be treated with respect at all times. The report described in detail how this could be achieved while not compromising the accused’s right to a fair trial – a principle that Philip regarded as sacrosanct. It was a source of satisfaction to him that these recommendations made their way into legislation in 2018, when the Victims and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 received royal assent.

Another major review undertaken by the VLRC during Philip’s term as chair concerned the legalisation of medicinal cannabis in exceptional circumstances. Philip was moved by the many powerful stories of personal suffering that the VLRC heard during consultations, and the report balanced personal compassion with medical responsibility. The government accepted all the VLRC’s recommendations, making Victoria the first Australian state to legalise medicinal cannabis.

Reforms based on the VLRC’s inquiries into jury empanelment and succession laws were also passed by Parliament during this period. The VLRC’s reports on crime and mental impairment, adoption, and litigation funding, among others led by Philip during his time as chair, may result in future legislative change.


Community law reform

Philip was a strong supporter of the VLRC’s community law reform program. Section 5(b) of the Victorian Law Reform Commission Act 2000 empowers the VLRC to initiate its own inquiries based on suggestions from the community about legal matters of general community concern, provided they are limited in size and scope. During Philip’s leadership of the VLRC, three community projects were completed, while a fourth (Neighbourhood Tree Disputes) was well advanced.

A community project of particular interest to Philip was funeral and burial instructions. While it began with a simple question – who should have the right to decide what happens to a person’s body when they die? – it led to intriguing questions about identity, culture, and changing social mores. Philip noted that the current law on funeral and burial instructions had emerged in 19th century England, when it was assumed that everybody wished to have a Christian burial. As he stated in his preface to that report, “21st century Australia is a vastly different society . . . There are diverse cultural and religious practices and complex family arrangements . . . people may reasonably expect funeral and burial arrangements to reflect their personal values and choices”.

The VLRC made the bold but straightforward recommendation that a law should be passed affording Victorians the opportunity to leave legally binding funeral and burial instructions. This reform, which would be an Australian first if implemented, overturning hundreds of years of common law, would modernise the law and bring it closer to contemporary values in our diverse society.




Philip was passionate about educating the community, and nowhere was this more evident than his enthusiasm for the VLRC’s education program. He thought nothing of driving many miles to talk to students about law reform and the Australian legal system, and was an unfailing contributor to the Victoria Law Foundation’s Law Talks program in metropolitan and regional Victoria. His videos on the legal system, aimed at school students, are frequently downloaded from the VLRC’s website – another part of his legacy.

Philip often referred to his belief that retired judicial officers should consider taking on roles in which they can continue to give the community the benefit of their experience and expertise. He demonstrated the value of this personally through his tireless contributions to modernising Victorian law. 

This column was provided by the VLRC. For further information ph 8608 7800 or see


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