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Interview: Opposition firm on matters of justice

Interview: Opposition firm on matters of justice

By Carolyn Ford

Access to Justice Interviews Legal Biography Young Persons 


The state shadow Attorney-General Edward O’Donohue has called for action to tackle court backlogs and to make the system work smarter.

The state Opposition has hit the refresh button on its law and order agenda, but it’s not backing away from being tough on crime.

“We are reviewing our policy positions, looking at them with fresh eyes. But we will maintain a very strong position when it comes to those who inflict the most serious harm on the community through their criminal acts,” Shadow Attorney-General Edward O’Donohue says.

“There needs to be a strong message of deterrence, and the community has a right to be protected by taking serious offenders off the street and putting them in jail.

“I often hear people say bail and parole laws have been made too tough,” says Mr O’Donohue of the reforms which have helped bump prison numbers to record levels and exacerbate court delays.

“But the number of offences by parolees has gone down enormously since the Callinan reforms. It has saved so much trauma, undoubtedly lives, and if a few extra people in prison is the consequence, that’s worth absorbing.

“Similarly, with bail laws. These reforms haven’t come out of thin air. They have come out of horrible tragedies that have rocked our city and state. We should be cautious about moving away from them. Community safety is a big issue for everyone. It will continue to be a factor.”

Youth justice is an area of community concern, too, says Mr O’Donohue who has spoken to victims of youth offenders who have had their lives “changed forever”. 

“You had break-outs from youth justice facilities, public infrastructure being absolutely trashed, millions of dollars in damage done, the Metropolitan Remand Centre was destroyed and cost over $100 million to repair and upgrade.

“There were and are legitimate concerns about the administration of the justice system in Victoria and we will continue to critique the government where we think it is failing.”

The government might be considering its case (by potentially embedding rehabilitation into the Corrections Act), but what it could do immediately, he says, is tackle court backlogs so that accused on remand are not held for long periods and victims are not being denied justice.

“To deal with burgeoning prisoner numbers, make the system work smarter, process remand prisoners quicker. It’s in nobody’s interest to have a prisoner on remand for 12-18 months. It’s a lose-lose situation. That is something the government can address today by working with the courts to tackle the delays and backlogs.”

Easing backlog in the courts by reducing prisoner movement – which was costly and frequently didn’t occur with non-presentation of prisoners to court becoming common – with better use of technology such as video appearances and improving court infrastructure are priorities for Mr O’Donohue. Magistrates' courts adjacent to prison complexes is an option.

Early intervention and therapeutic justice have a part to play in the justice system, Mr O’Donohue says. Police in schools is still being considered.

“It’s important we engage earlier and better with people at risk. The thinking behind that policy was dealing with young people at risk and engaging proactively. We will see.

“We have seen Victoria Police withdraw from a number of proactive policies that engage with young people and that’s regrettable. I hope Vic Pol gets the resources to re-engage.”

Long term, Mr O’Donohue says, “we want a justice system that works efficiently, quickly and objectively for the community, one where the profession is highly regarded and respected because it is so important to the administration of justice. How you get there is the challenge.”

Future options are being hammered out now, in opposition, which Mr O’Donohue says is when the foundations of good government are laid.

“After you lose an election, you re-evaluate and re-look at things.

“It’s a tough business, politics, and the objective is to be in government. That wasn’t the way it was last time so you just get over it and get on with it.

“I’m starting to meet with lawyers around the state, get connected, understand the issues. That’s my task at the moment. I met with Bendigo Law Society practitioners recently, had a great round table, hearing their frank assessment of what they see as the issues, which was great. I will replicate that across Victoria in the next 12-18 months.

“In the first year of opposition my goal is to engage with the profession as much as possible, to learn more about the issues as practitioners and the community see them and develop a policy platform going forward. Obviously, the issues change and we will review and adjust accordingly.

“I am grateful to stakeholders in the way they have welcomed me, had an open door to talk about issues, what they see are the challenges, what they want to retain or change. The courts, the LIV, Victorian Bar, practitioners and others have all provided information.

“One of the nice things about this role is reconnecting with people I studied law with or knew when I was practising. It’s rekindled that network which is a great source of feedback about what’s good, bad or indifferent.

“The LIV has been fantastic, including me at events and issues briefings. Any questions, they are on the end of the phone to help and give feedback and I appreciate that. That all helps and I am grateful and will continue to engage as much as I can. It’s given me great motivation to re-set and get on with it.

“The LIV has always been an important, respected voice on matters of justice. Whether you agree or not, it should be respected and I will always do that in this role, which I feel privileged to have.”

Mr O’Donohue, 45, had a better likelihood than many of going into the law.

The Shadow Attorney-General’s paternal grandmother was a lawyer, and a ground-breaking one at that. In 1934, Margot O’Donohue became the first married woman in Victoria to graduate from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Laws, and be admitted to practice. By graduation day, she also had an 18-month-old son and in short order, joined Nicholas O’Donohue & Company, a commercial practice started by her husband in 1925 and which continues to this day.

Mr O’Donohue was a small boy when his grandmother died, but she was often spoken of, particularly for her trailblazing legal achievement. He spoke of her in his inaugural speech to Parliament in 2006, as a beneficiary of universal education and equal opportunity.

In a nod from the LIV, Margot O’Donohue is highlighted on the timeline in the LIV’s new offices on level 13 at 140 William Street, which charts significant moments in the life of the Victorian legal profession.

“It was a lovely surprise to see her on the timeline. It’s great to see her acknowledged in this way,” Mr O’Donohue says. “I understand she was also the only woman in her graduating year.

“She was absolutely an inspiration. My grandparents were often talked of. Margot was a very intelligent and capable woman. She also did a fine arts degree later in life. She was an interested and interesting woman. As a family, we are very proud of her, although she wouldn’t have seen herself as a trailblazer. She was a very humble and modest person.”

History writ large also played its part in steering Mr O’Donohue towards the law and, eventually, government. 

Studying arts-law at ANU, with a major in history, he learned of the revolutions of Russia, France and America, and grew to appreciate the Westminster system. “I’m a passionate believer in our system of government and principles of independence and separation that underpin it.”

He did his articles with Galbally and O’Bryan, working as a solicitor then barrister for a few short years before becoming a director of a real estate and project management company. “I’m grateful to have studied law but eventually I didn’t see myself practising.” He was elected the member for Eastern Victoria Region in 2006 and re-elected in 2010 and 2014.

He was Minister for Liquor and Gaming Regulation, Corrections and Crime Prevention 2013-2014. Between 2014-2018 he was Shadow Minister for Police, Corrections and Community Safety. In December 2018, he was appointed Shadow Attorney-General, replacing solicitor and former member for Hawthorn John Pesutto in the role.

“We are so lucky to live in a democratic country. “I can disagree with Jill [Hennessy, state Attorney-General], have robust arguments, and at the end of the day we go home then get up the next morning and fight another battle. We use words not weapons. And ultimately, the community makes the decision and that’s the way it should be.” 

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