Is the Charter a black hole?

Before the abortion reform free-for-all kicked off in Victoria’s Legislative Assembly yesterday, Robert Clark, the shadow Attorney-General, attacked the Charter in response to this article from the August 5th Lawyers Weekly:

THE VICTORIAN Government Solicitor’s Office (VGSO) is preparing to move into new premises in September after a spate of increased work saw it dramatically increase staff numbers and run out of space. John Cain, the Victorian Government Solicitor, said that while two years ago the office had 50 lawyers, it now had 80. “We’ve had a very good period where we’ve seen growth in our revenue jump upward of 20 per cent,” he said. It’s an impressive feat, considering the office really has only one client; the Victorian Government.

While Cain said the work had come from a broad spectrum of areas, the charter of human rights and responsibilities was largely fuelling the boom. Despite preparing to expand into another office, Cain said he would be surprised if the rate of growth continued. “But we’re certainly at a size now where slower growth would be reasonable. We’re the size of a firm that’s appropriate for a government solicitor’s office,” he said. “We are able to attract very good-quality lawyers because of the range and diversity of work the office does.”

Clark, in a Member’s Statement, commented:

The cost of this huge increase is borne by the taxpayer. At a highly conservative estimate of $100 000 per extra lawyer, this comes to a total of $3 million a year. If you allow for higher salaries, plus on-costs, accommodation and support, the cost could be $6 million year or more. That is just the extra cost of lawyers at the VGSO; it does not account for all the extra legal staff and other public servants that different departments have had to hire, the external legal advice they have had to obtain or the extra cost caused for cases in court having to deal with charter issues. This is all money being wasted on a charter that has failed to actually deliver any improvements in human rights for Victorians. If anything it has undermined human rights by making the law more complicated, uncertain and dependent upon the personal opinions of unelected judges. The money being wasted on the charter is money that is desperately needed to treat patients in our hospitals, put more police on the street or improve public transport. We on this side of the house warned that the charter would come at enormous cost to taxpayers, and that is what is happening.

If the Charter is to become the first human rights document to be repealed in a Western country, this financial argument will be key. The employment of so many new lawyers in the VGSO is certainly fascinating, especially considering the low number (and low quality) of reported Charter judgments to date. It would be nice to know more about the work that the VGSO is doing.

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