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New Attorney-General, new legal year

New Attorney-General, new legal year

By Karin Derkley

Interviews 

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Victorian Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes spoke to members of the profession at the annual Legal Laneway Breakfast.

New Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes says her personal passions for politics and reform were originally ignited when she worked as an adviser to former Attorney-General Rob Hulls.

“It was in this portfolio where I saw first-hand how progressive policy can leave a better legacy, help our most vulnerable and change the state for the better,” she told the Legal Laneway Breakfast in early February.

Ms Symes moved into the role after former Attorney-General Jill Hennessy resigned from cabinet in December last year. Her previous position was as the Minister for Agriculture, Regional Development and Resources and Deputy Leader of the Legislative Council. She will continue to be Minister for Resources.

Ms Symes was born and grew up in Benalla in North East Victoria. She moved to Melbourne in 1997 to do her law degree at Deakin University and was admitted to practice as an Australian lawyer but has not worked as a legal practitioner. She worked instead as a disability support worker and then as an industrial officer with the Australian Services Union, before going to work as an adviser to Mr Hulls. She later worked as Daniel Andrews' legal and justice adviser when he was opposition leader. At the November 2014 election she was elected to parliament as a member for Northern Victoria.

In her new role, Ms Symes pays tribute to “incredible mentors”, including Mr Hulls, “whose tireless commitment to Labor values” she said "set the benchmark for legal reform in the state”, and Jill Hennessy, who she has praised for implementing “crucial hard-fought and long overdue reforms to our legal system”. 

“Underpinning every one of them was a commitment to fairness, [and] to smart justice policies which make our community safer and empower the most marginalised,” she said.

One of her first tasks as Attorney-General was to pass through the bill to ban gay conversion practices, a controversial piece of legislation introduced by Jill Hennessy that received pushback from some religious groups.

Ms Symes has defended the laws, saying the government had consulted closely with survivors, LGBTIQ+ organisations and religious organisations on the legislation “to make sure it is effective in stamping out abhorrent change and suppression practices once and for all”.

 “Not only are these practices completely ineffective, they are immoral and devastatingly harmful – not to mention a violation of fundamental human rights. There is certainly no evidence whatsoever that sexual orientation could be changed, nor is there any need to. They have been predicated on the belief that LGBTI people are broken and somehow need to be fixed.

“The new laws strike the right balance between protecting people from the serious harm caused by change or suppression practices, while respecting the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”

In her first week back in parliament Ms Symes also oversaw the end of the public drunkenness law, which had been said to unfairly penalise Aboriginal people. “I know this is especially important and that the Aboriginal community has been disproportionately affected by this law and has been pressing for reform for decades,” she said. 

“When it comes to this issue, it is clear that a punitive approach is not the answer. We know that a public health response with clear pathways for first responders and close cooperation between first responders and service providers is paramount. This reform is overdue, it will save lives and . . . it is smart justice.”

After a year of “undeniable challenges” dominated by the pandemic and the restrictions to slow its spread, she has praised the resilience of the legal profession and its willingness to adapt. 

“The past year has been an enormous test for all of us as individuals, as a government, and as a society,” she says. “We know COVID-19 has impacted every institution in Victoria, including our courts.” 

The courts have managed to maintain their focus on matters involving safety, particularly family violence, and succeeded in ensuring that justice continued to be served by scaling up the use of technology to ensure that virtual hearings continued.

The government will continue to tackle the backlogs in the courts with a justice recovery plan, on top of $80 million in extra funding last year, that aims for more matters to be resolved outside court (especially family violence matters), safe access to court for all Victorians, supporting people with remote hearings, and cases being heard and finalised quickly. She says she looks forward to working with the profession on these important issues. 

She is especially committed to the success of specialist courts such as the drug courts as examples of smart justice “which aim to stop the cycle of reoffending [and are] about addressing the underlying factors that contribute to offending and support people to get their lives on track and contribute to society”.

“In doing so they improve community safety and decrease the burden on our courts and corrections systems.”

Another priority area of reform is the justice system’s response to victims of sexual assault, an issue on which the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) will report in August. “We have seen over the past few years a powerful overdue reckoning with the issue of sexual assault and harassment and recognition that the issue should be talked about and must be confronted. 

“It is pleasing that we are seeing less victim blaming, greater trauma-informed reporting and an outdated attitude finally changing. But there is more to do. The VLRC report will build on previous law reform in this area and I hope it shows us new ways to empower victims to come forward and obtain justice.”

Investing in programs to stamp out family violence will be another key area of her focus as Attorney-General. “The premier has often said that family violence is the number one law and order issue. We are rolling out specialist family violence courts across the state which were a key recommendation of our ground-breaking royal commission. These courts provide greater security for women and children experiencing family violence, and they hold perpetrators to account.” ■


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