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Power Speaks to Sensible Sentencing Trust

Hon Simon Power

Minister of Justice

Speech to Sensible Sentencing Trust Conference


Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge the victims and the victims’ families here today.

This is a conference every family hopes they will never have to think about attending, so I applaud your courage for being here.

I’d also like to acknowledge the Sensible Sentencing Trust for inviting me to speak.

I appreciate the constructive relationship we continue to have.

The starting point for my time as Minister of Justice has been to look at the justice system from the perspective of those who find themselves in it through no fault of their own.

I simply don’t buy the argument that empowering victims can’t be done without upsetting the court’s dispassionate assessment of the facts.

Victims have a stake in the justice system too, and I’ve been working hard to hammer that stake into the ground.

The first of July was an important milestone for that.

It marked the day that all convicted offenders began paying a $50 levy at sentencing, with that money going directly to victims of crime.

The levy is expected to generate $13.6 million in its first four years for a range new initiatives, including:

• For homicide victims families: an increased funeral grant, a grant for those suffering financial difficulties, and a new court attendance grant.
• For sexual violence victims: a new grant to contribute to the cost of expenses incurred as a result of sexual violence, such as replacing items of clothing collected for forensic evidence.
• And, for victims of serious crime: an increase in the amount of financial assistance available to help them attend High Court trials and Parole Board hearings.

The first of July also marked the beginning of a new court support service for victims of sexual violence.

By June 2012 there will be 18 sexual violence advisers - people who understand the dynamics of sexual violence - providing individualised case management and support across the country.

And, for the families of homicide victims; the support service currently offered by Victim Support has received funding for four regional homicide support workers.

This will provide practical and emotional support to families to guide them through the court process and its aftermath.

New comprehensive information resources have also been developed for victims, including pamphlets, a DVD, and a redesigned website.

These initiatives are designed to make the criminal justice process less bewildering for victims.

The first of July also marked the beginning of on-the-spot police safety orders for victims of domestic violence.

As at August 8, police have issued 355 of these orders, which is both pleasing and alarming.

You can see the first of July was an important milestone in the work to put victims first – but I’m not done yet.

And, accusations by some in the legal profession that I have made ‘knee jerk’ reforms – particularly around my decision to abolish the partial defence of provocation – have only strengthened my resolve to make more changes.

I regard my decision to remove provocation from the statute book as the Government having the courage to do what was right.

It was something the Law Commission had advocated for on two occasions since 2001.

So it was hardly a knee-jerk reaction.

What I do accept is that the justice reforms I have made, and will continue to make, will not always be popular with those who have an institutional investment in the justice system.

Then again, you don’t get into politics to be popular.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: legal tradition is not a good enough reason to not change.

We must be careful that our institutions don’t lose sight of their primary role as they become increasingly shaped by those who work within them and live and breathe their rules.

To ensure that doesn’t happen we must drive reform from outside the system.

What we need to remember is that the justice system does not belong to judges, lawyers - or politicians, for that matter.

It belongs to the people.

To my next phase of reforms.

Early next year I hope to be in a position to introduce a bill to amend the Victims Rights Act.

The Ministry of Justice is currently analysing public submissions on issues I know many of you have concerns about, including the censorship of victim impact statements, victim-prosecutor communication, and the Victim Notification System.

I’m also determined to change the way our courts treat child victims and witnesses, and as such I’m exploring the possibility of introducing some elements of an inquisitorial system to limit a child’s exposure to the courts.

You can expect me to be saying more on this later today.

There will also be a public consultation document out later this year on aspects of the bail system which I hope you will make submissions on.

My work to speed up and simplify the criminal justice system is also progressing well.

We simply must find ways to speed up our courts because it’s unacceptable that it takes up to 17 months for a High Court case to proceed to trial, drawing out what is an already painful experience for victims and their families.

Removing oral depositions hearings is helping to unclog the system, as is the rollout of audio visual links in courts and prisons.

The Criminal Procedure Simplification Project will build on this, and I expect to introduce a bill to Parliament before the end of the year.

It includes proposals to raise the jury trial threshold, require counsel to attempt to resolve cases before to a hearing, and require the defence to identify issues in dispute so the court can focus on them at trial.

Another issue I’m considering is something Parole Board Chair Judge David Carruthers will outline in his speech to this conference this afternoon.

That is the ability for the Parole Board to conduct screening hearings in order to weed out those offenders eligible to be considered for parole, who clearly have no prospect of success.

This would allow them to focus on cases which require more careful thought and consideration, and would spare victims the trauma of regular parole board hearings.

I’m interested in getting your feedback on Judge Carruthers’ proposal to help shape my thinking in this area.

Before I finish today I want to emphasise the work that is going on at the top of the cliff in preventing people becoming victims in the first place.

Though it’s a lot harder to measure, and a lot harder to see, I can report that good progress is being made on addressing the drivers of crime, which we are treating as a whole-of-government priority.

One of the initial focuses for this work is on reducing the harm caused by alcohol.

On Monday I announced the Government’s alcohol law reform package which targets youth drinking, limits alcohol availability, and trading hours, and gives communities more say about licences in their patch.

Tackling alcohol harm is a critical component of addressing the drivers of crime, with police figures showing alcohol is a factor in nearly a third of all reported offences, and half of all homicides.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this Government was elected to make changes to the justice system, that’s what we're doing, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.

I make no apology for taking long overdue action to remedy areas that need reform.

I see my ministerial warrant as a licence to explore what could be, rather than accept what is.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak to you today and best of luck for the rest of your conference.

Ends

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