Lawyer groups stand up after Dutton denounces judiciary

by |
Lawyer organisations, including Australia’s peak body for the profession, are standing up after Peter Dutton stepped up his criticism of Labor’s appointments to the judiciary in Victoria.

The federal home affairs minister started the year saying that Victorians were puzzled about “the jokes of sentences being handed down,” which he says have hindered the state’s ability to tackle street crime. He blamed “political correctness that’s taken hold” for the soft sentences.

Last week, Dutton told 3AW radio in Melbourne that part of the solution to the street crime problem is to ensure appointments to the magistrates’ court are people who will impose sentences and provide some deterrence to repeat offenders.

“If you’re appointing civil libertarians to the magistrates’ court over a long period of time, then you will get soft sentences,” Dutton said.

Last year, Dutton said that it was “un-Australian” for members of the legal profession to be representing asylum seekers pro bono. The comment also got rebukes from the legal profession, which said it was proud of lawyers who do this work and that there is nothing more Australian than upholding the rule of law.

“Inappropriate and without foundation”

The Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) was first to voice its alarm over political attacks against Victorian judges, magistrates, and the legal profession.

Without specifically naming Dutton, the LIV said that the attacks are “totally inappropriate and without foundation.”

“There is no place for political attacks on the judiciary and undermining the independence of our judges and magistrates. The community can have absolute trust in the judiciary and the legal profession in Victoria,” it said.

In a later statement published by the body which identified the attack came from Dutton, Justice Robert Beech-Jones, the president of the Judicial Conference of Australia, said that generalising is not reasonable.

“The appropriate policing and legislative response to concerns over these issues are matters for those governments, but personalised attacks on judges and magistrates as opposed to individual decisions is unfair and unwarranted,” Beech-Jones said. “It is unfair in that the judges and magistrates in question cannot respond and undermines the capacity of the judiciary to apply the law impartially.”

Improper for a federal minister

Over the weekend, the Australian Bar Association (ABA) said that it is very concerned about the recent political attacks on the Victorian judiciary.

“Attacks on judicial officers undermine democracy and the rule of law and erode public confidence in the courts,” said Noel Huntley SC, ABA president. “The reputation of the judiciary of Victoria for integrity and independence is both entirely justified and vital to the maintenance of the rule of law. Whilst this abuse is not a threat to that integrity or independence due to the quality of the judges, it is improper that a federal minister would engage in it.”

The ABA said that the country’s democracy relies on mutual respect between the executive and judicial branches of government.

“Courts should be free from unfounded political criticism,” the ABA said.

Undermines foundations of the democratic system

The Law Council of Australia, the nation’s top lawyer body, said that ensuring the rule of law is respected and maintained is vital to the strength of the country’s legal system.

Morry Bailes, Law Council president, said the recent political attacks on the Victorian judiciary are not useful.

“The Law Council shares the views of the Law Institute of Victoria. There is no place for political attacks on the judiciary undermining the independence of judges and magistrates,” Bailes said. “It is understood that in our free society, informed comment on judicial decisions is part of normal discourse, but politicised criticism undermines the foundations of the democratic system which must be closely guarded by all, especially those in government.”

He added that judges and magistrates are experts in the law. To ensure the separation of powers, they must be allowed to perform their duty without interference and unwarranted criticism, he said.

The Law Society also hoped that all Australians understand the value of an independent judiciary and the importance of upholding the rule of law in legal decision making.


Related stories:
Victorian Bar slams minister on ‘un-Australian’ remark
Law Council slams immigration minister for “anti-Australian” comments