The sex offenders’ challenge

My guess last post was right. (Of course, presumably the whole legal community knew this, but not me.) It’s on!:

Two convicted sex offenders are invoking Victoria’s human rights charter to appeal against being given an extended supervision order in what is a legal first.

One of the applicants is a child sex offender jailed for more than 10 years for his crimes. The man, whose name is suppressed, was convicted for sex crimes against his teenage daughter, another teenage girl and his adult partner. He was given a 10-year extended supervision order when he finished his jail term after a County Court judge found a “high degree of probability” he was likely to further offend. However, his lawyer Graham Thomas SC told a Court of Appeal hearing today his client was not a high-risk child sex offender and therefore not eligible to to be subject to the order.

Mr Thomas also said the sentencing judge had indicated she did not believe the man was suitable for an order but later changed her position. But counsel representing the secretary to the Department of Justice, David Grace QC, said the man’s crimes were premeditated and opportunistic. Mr Grace said the sentencing judge included in her reasons the fact the man had shown a lack of insight into his behaviour by denying his wrongdoing. He said the man jumped bail on the day he was due to attend his court hearing on his application for an extended supervision order and had refused to take part in a sex offenders program, despite being offered many times. Mr Grace said the man continued to “thumb his nose up at authority” and suggested he tried to create relationships with females with children while he was in jail so he could groom them for sexual offending.

The second sex offender is appealing an eight-year extended supervision order imposed on him by the County Court on the basis it is too long. The man, whose name is also suppressed, was jailed for more than a year for indecent assault and will also use the charter to argue his case.

Victoria became the first Australian state to implement a Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities on January 1 and it is the first time it will be considered by Victoria’s appeal court. The hearing before Justices Geoffrey Nettle, President Chris Maxwell and Mark Weinberg continues tomorrow.

Um, it’s actually the sixth time the Charter will be ‘considered’ by Victoria’s appeal court. The appeal court cited the Charter once in 2006 and four times again this year, including in its appalling Underbelly decision. Here’s hoping, though, that this will be the first time the Court actually does the Charter justice, in analysis if not in the final result. Interestingly, all three judges in this hearing are Charter virgins. The case, argued today, is listed for a second day of argument tomorrow. [EDIT: And here’s the Hun’s take. The tabloid refers to the offenders as ‘sex fiends’ (fair enough, I guess) and, as is the norm, gives more details of the legal argument than the Age.]

But what is being argued? The article is tantalisingly vague. I can see three types of rights arguments could be made about extended supervision orders (ESOs): Continue reading

The Charter in the suburbs

VEOHRC’s Charter report card, ‘First Steps Forward‘, revealed that many local councils – compellingly regarded as at the coalface of the practical implentation of the Charter, given their service delivery role – were yet to even start crawling during the Charter’s first year:

  • The sector’s preparedness is particularly low in ensuring that the processes involved in developing local laws comply with the Charter and in raising awareness about the Charter within local communities.
  • The failure of 25 local councils to respond to the Commission’s survey suggests a lack of engagement with the Charter by some councils that will need to be addressed by councils, peak bodies and state government in 2008.
  • While recognising the difficulties faced by local councils in engaging fully with the Charter, the sector will need to take stronger action in 2008 to ensure the compatibility of local laws and policies with the Charter and to develop a culture of human rights in local government.

The City of Hobsons Bay didn’t feature on VEHORC’s list of exceptional councils that had taken strong Charter initiatives. However, the latest newletter from the HRLRC brings some good news about the Charter’s impact in the suburbs.

Planning issues involving proposed Islamic facilities are, alas, problematic in Australia. An application by the Quranic Society for rezoning and permission to build a large school in Cawdor attracted considerable media attention, in part because of the involvement of Fred Nile. Cambden Council’s May decision to reject the application, citing a slew of planning concerns, has passed this difficult issue on to NSW Planning and Environment Court. By contrast, an application for rezoning and approval to build a new mosque in Newport West’ Paisley Park has been less difficult. Apart from leafleting by the Australian Protectionist Party, the sailing has been smooth, with a positive report from an expert planning committee and a recent vote in its favour by the City of Hobsons Bay. Is the difference just in the merits of the two applications? Or is this a Sydney/Melbourne thing? Or has the Charter made a difference?

The Panel Report on the proposed Blenheim Road Mosque refers to the Charter prominently in its introduction:

We are conscious that the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities seeks to protect and promote certain human rights by placing obligations on all public authorities, including local councils, to act in a way that is compatible with human rights and to give proper consideration to relevant human rights when making decisions. Of particular relevance in this situation are the rights to freedom of religion including communal religious observance, and cultural rights….

We are also conscious that any limitations on the exercise of a human rights must be carefully considered and should be the least restrictive means available to achieve the intended purpose. Our consideration of both the Amendment and the Applicaiton recognises the human rights prooteced by the Chater of Human Rights and Responsibilities and takes into account the obligations placed on public authorities.

The Charter gets a further express mention in the discussion of the proposed rezoing of Paisley Park from Education to, in part, ‘Private sports grounds and ethnic community establishments’ (allowing the construction of a mosque) and, for the remainder, ‘Public Park and Recreation Zone’. In addressing the question of whether this rezoning is ‘strategically jusified’, the Panel introduces the discussion by stating:

[T]he Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities establishes an obligation to ensure that people can practice their religious beliefs, including communal reigious observance.

This is a pretty strong statement of the effect of the Charter! It depends on the interaction of two Charter provisions:

14(1) Every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, including-… (b) the freedom to demonstrate his or her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching, either individually or as part of a community, in public or in private.

38(1) Subject to this section, it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way that is incompatible with a human right or, in making a decision, to fail to give proper consideration to a relevant human right.

Remembering that ‘act’ is defined to include ‘failure to act’ and a ‘proposal to act’, there is a lot going for the Panel’s view that Councils are obliged to do what they can to allow local religious groups to worship (and teach) in a communal way. Presumably, that would extend to making planning decisions that faciliate buildings for that purpose, at least where existing buildings don’t serve local needs. That is the case here:

It is clear from submissions and inspections that the existing mosque serves an established religious community but is too small to meet their needs. Further, the converted warehouse and dwelling provide substandard facilities for worship. Some of the inadequacies include insufficient and impractical space, poor ablution arrangements, and the effective exclusion of women from worship at the mosque.

But what about the defences to the conduct mandate? Continue reading

The right to jury nullification

I’m absolutely thrilled at today’s verdict in the trial of Joseph ‘Jihad Jack’ Thomas. This is the second time a jury has examined the case against Thomas and issued a split verdict, clearing him of major terrorism charges and convicting him of trivia. In both trials, the verdict was surprising in light of the evidence, where Thomas confessed to the appearance of being a terrorist, but claimed that it was all a ruse.

While it may be that both juries diligently applied the requirement of proof beyond reasonable doubt, I suspect – and indeed hope – that the split verdicts were deliberate messages aimed at the Australian authorities, expressing outrage at their connivance in conduct that is much worse than anything Thomas is accused of.

There’s been some talk lately of abolishing juries. I’m torn by such calls. The complex task of fact-finding strikes me as ideally suited to professionals, who can be trained for their job and can be expected to provide testable reasons for their decisions. But professionals so often tend to toe official lines. These conflicting criteria for good fact-finders appear in the Charter’s fair hearing right:

24(1) A person charged with a criminal offence…  has the right to have the charge… decided by a competent, independent and impartial court or tribunal after a fair and public hearing.

Lord Devlin beautifully expressed how competence (via the long service of professional life) can be at odds with independence when it comes to the task of finding the facts that connect the law to individuals:

The power that puts the jury above the law can never be safely entrusted to a single person or to an institution, no matter how great or how good. For it is an absolute power and, given time, absolute power corrupts absolutely. But jurors are anonymous characters who meet upon a random and unexpected summons to a single task (or perhaps a few), whose accomplishment is their dissolution. Power lies beneath their feet but they tread on it so swiftly that they are not burnt.

The juries of Jihad Jack managed to accomplish a justice that completely eluded the various institutions involved: the AFP, the Cth DPP, the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the High Court.

The Charter, alas, was inapplicable in Thomas’s trials, due in part to its federal aspects (the involvement of AFP and ASIO, and the federal offences) and also (in relation to state aspects, such as court procedure) because of  the Charter’s appalling transitional provision. If the Charter had been applicable, some weighty rights indeed would have been engaged:

  • Charter s. 10 (torture): Not only was Thomas (on all accounts) tortured and degraded at the hands of Pakistani and CIA agents, but Cummins J appallingly admitted confessions he made to escape further torture.
  • Charter ss. 14, 15 & 16 (civil freedoms):The ridiculous offence of receiving money from (as opposed to funding) a terrorist organisation, without any requirement to prove an intent to further the organisation’s aims or to commit a crime, would, if it was a Victorian offence, have almost certainly engages the Charter’s rights to belief, expression and association. While these rights can be subjected to ‘lawful restrictions’, that caveat requires that the restrictions be accessible and proportionate. Charging Thomas with an offence that was recently created while he was out-of-contact overseas scarcely meets the first requirement; the 25 year maximum penalty (and the oppressive five-year sentence Cummins imposed) make a mockery out of the second.
  • Charter s. 25(2)(b) (right to a lawyer): The AFP told Thomas of his right to communicate with a lawyer, but simultaneously informed him that he couldn’t exercise it (due to Pakistani restrictions.) Their failure to stop the interview then and there is what made his first trial possible, after Cummins appallingly held that compliance with Thomas’s rights wasn’t required in the circumstance. If Thomas had access to a lawyer, he would have been made aware of the new offences (and, of course, advised to exercise his right to silence.)
  • Charter s. 26 (double jeopardy): The Court of Appeal, after correcting the erroroneous admission of THomas’s tortured and unadvised confessions, which permitted his first trial, erroneously permitted a second trial, sidestepping a clear High Court authority (not to mention a major ruling of the US Supreme Court) to allow the prosecution to have a second go based on entirely new evidence. The outgoing Chief Justice and Hayne J weren’t bothered.

The new evidence was interviews given by Thomas that were published after his first wrongful conviction. A lot of commentators have glibly observed that Thomas was ‘badly advised’ about giving that interview. But I disagree. Continue reading

The right to a parliamentary debate

The abortion debate yields another first: the first (to my knowledge) published legal advice on the Charter as part of a political debate. Such advices are a regular part of the landscape in other jurisdictions with human rights laws, so it’s surely a positive development. The advice is from Phillips Fox to Catholic Health Australia Inc and is written (or signed) by partners Nigel Preston and Rachel Walsh. So, did CHA get their money’s worth?

The major claim of the advice is that there should have been a statement of compatibility with respect to clause 8. The problem is Charter s. 48:

48 Nothing in this Charter affects any law applicable to abortion or child destruction, whether before or after the commencement of Part 2.

Preston and Walsh’s argument is:

Section 48 is a savings provision, intended to protect laws concerning abortion from being interfered with by or challenged under the Charter, whenever they came into effect. In particular, section 48 was intended to protect the common law on abortion from challenge under section 9 of the Charter…  Indeed, an early exposure draft of the Charter contained a caveat to the Right to Life provision that it applied only after birth.

Insofar as the Bill is concerned with legalising or decriminalising aspects of abortion, it is correct to say that those provisions are not subject to the legislative processes established by the Charter. However, the problem is that this Bill affects rights other than those concerned with the decriminalisation of abortion. Clause 8 of the Bill contains provisions that go beyond the remit of section 48 of the Charter, and so should be subject to the Charter’s process for scrutinising the Bill for compatibility with human rights and to other Charter provisions (including the interpretive obligation in section 32).

Whereas SARC, in its report, focussed on the words ‘law’, ‘applicable’ and ‘affects’, this argument centres on Charter s. 48’s alleged purpose, tying it exclusively to the ‘legalising or decrininalising aspects’ of abortion and child destruction. I’m not so sure that the criminal law angle on abortion can be so readily separated from the medical law angle – or that the purpose of Charter s. 48 can be precisely discerned – but there’s no doubt that the scope of Charter s. 48 is quite a quandary.

So, what are the consequences if parts of the bill are outside Charter s. 48’s scope? That depends on these two sections:

28(1) A member of Parliament who proposes to introduce a Bill into a House of Parliament must cause a statement of compatibility to be prepared in respect of that Bill.

(2) A member of Parliament who introduces a Bill into a House of Parliament, or another member acting on his or her behalf, must cause the statement of compatibility prepared under subsection (1) to be laid before the House of Parliament into which the Bill is introduced before giving his or her second reading speech on the Bill.

(3) A statement of compatibility must state- (a) whether, in the member’s opinion, the Bill is compatible with human rights and, if so, how it is compatible; and (b) if, in the member’s opinion, any part of the Bill is incompatible with human rights, the nature and extent of the incompatibility.

29 A failure to comply with section 28 in relation to any Bill that becomes an Act does not affect the validity, operation or enforcement of that Act or of any other statutory provision.

Preston and Walsh say:

You may be confronted by an argument that the failure to comply with the Charter has no consequences. The basis of the argument is that the Charter requires a process of consideration of compatibility with human rights to be followed at the time of second reading of a Bill, but the Act which flows from the Bill is not invalidated if that process is not followed…. To our thinking, section 29 of the Charter is not the point in this case. The Bill is not yet an Act. This section is designed to remedy a mistake in the processes leading to an Act. This section is not a mechanism to avoid consideration of the Charter in relation to any Bill where the Charter should be considered.

That’s certainly true. But it does mean that this legal advice is actually about the legality of non-justiciable parliamentary process. Anyway, Preston and Walsh go on:

The central point is that the human rights protected by the Charter should have been considered at the time when this Bill was introduced into Parliament. The clear objective of the Charter is to facilitate a consideration of those human rights which are protected by the Charter in the debate on this Bill. The wrongful exclusion of the Charter from debate in relation to this Bill has cut short a proper consideration of the human rights which may be affected by the Bill. According to the second reading speech, the Charter was intended to promote a ‘dialogue model of human rights’, which ‘seeks to address human rights issues though a formal dialogue’ between branches of government. The exclusion of the Charter from debate contradicts this intended goal. It is not for us to say what might have happened if the Charter had been considered in Parliamentary debate. It is not for us to conjecture whether the Bill would have been amended, or not. This is a matter for Parliament, but more particularly, it is a matter for a properly informed Parliament.

Speaking of the ‘exclusion’ of the Charter from parliamentary debate is a little extreme. No-one’s stopping the Charter being mentioned there or elsewhere. All that’s missing is the statement of compatibility. (And, ahem, the Parliament was ‘informed’ (properly or otherwise) by SARC’s report. SARC suggested a similar conclusion on the possible requirement of a statement of compatibility, but by a different argument: that Charter s. 48 didn’t have any impact at all on Charter s. 28, because it only affects laws, not bills.)

The advice then goes on to suggest four rights that clause 8 limits: Continue reading

Do hospitals have rights?

The Charter has made the front page of the Age twice in two days, both curiously on the issue of abortion, despite Charter s. 48, which provides that nothing in the Charter ‘affects any law applicable to abortion or child destruction.’ While the Minister took the view that Charter s. 48 removes any obligation to provide a statement of compatibility (and hence none was provided), SARC questioned whether Charter s.48 has any impact on the debate over bills, which aren’t laws and aren’t affected by the Charter.

Possibly to the surprise of some, the Charter has been raised almost exclusively by the pro-life side of the debate. They’ve picked their issue cleverly, focusing not on the abstract debate about whether or not foetuses have human rights but instead on Charter s. 14:

14(1) Every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, including- (a) the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his or her choice; and (b) the freedom to demonstrate his or her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching, either individually or as part of a community, in public or in private.

(2) A person must not be coerced or restrained in a way that limits his or her freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

Catholic Archbishop Denis Hart wrote, in a ‘pastoral letter’:

The Bill is an unprecedented attack on the freedom to hold and exercise fundamental religious beliefs. It makes a mockery of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and the Equal Opportunity Act in that it requires health professionals with a conscientious objection to abortion to refer patients seeking an abortion to other health professionals who do not have such objections. It also requires health professionals with a conscientious objection to abortion to perform an abortion in whatever is deemed an emergency. The Bill is clearly intended to require Catholic hospitals to permit the referral of women for abortions…

Catholic hospitals and the large number of Victorians they serve are also in a vulnerable position. Catholic hospitals will not perform abortions and will not provide referrals for the purpose of abortion. If this provision is passed it will be an outrageous attack on our service to the community and contrary to Catholic ethical codes. It will leave Catholic hospitals and doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion in a position where they will be acting contrary to the law if they act in accordance with their deeply held moral convictions. This Bill poses a real threat to the continued existence of Catholic hospitals. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to foresee how Catholic hospitals could continue to operate maternity or emergency departments in this state in their current form.

In an op-ed in today’s Age, Liberty Victoria Vice-President Anne O’Rourke responds to this Charter claim:

The Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities does indeed guarantee a right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, as Archbishop Hart points out. There are two errors in his claim, however. The first is that only human beings, not hospitals or related entities, have human rights

O’Rourke here relies on Charter s. 6(1), which provides that ‘[o]nly persons have human rights’. This provision reflects traditional human rights advocates’ dislike of corporations. Indeed, the Victorian Law Reform Commission, whose recommendations are responsible for the Abortion Law Reform Bill’s ‘conscience clause’, expressly adopted this prejudice as a reason to reject the approach taken in Western Australia of providing every ‘person, hospital, health institution, other institution or service’ with a conscience clause. The VLRC wrote:

As freedom of conscience is generally understood to be held by individuals, the conscience
provision should not extend to corporations. This is consistent with existing conscience
provisions in other Victorian laws. The danger in extending the provision to institutions is that it may establish a precedent of corporations holding interests that could be categorised as human rights. This could lead to perverse outcomes.

What are those ‘perverse outcomes’? A footnote explains:

See, eg, RJR-MacDonald Inc v Canada (Attorney General) [1995] 3 SCR 199. Free speech extends to commercial speech—tobacco advertising laws contravened freedom of expression. There is no reason to extend the provision to organisations because the new law of abortion will not establish a positive duty to perform abortions.

Yes, that old furphy, the supposedly controversial extension of freedom of expression to commercial – not corporate – speech. Not only was the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in that case entirely correct – tobacco sellers were barred from saying that required health warnings were from the government, not them; and the Canadian government declined to provide any evidence for why less broad bans would fail to achieve the desired effect; remedying both defects led to the Supreme Court upholding the new law – but it is, at best, an argument for restritcing free expression, not other rights. The real gripe of Australian human rights advocates with the Canadian case, and corporations in general, isn’t any analysis of the decision – there’s NEVER anything more than a footnote – but anger that the Canadian government’s shoddy lawyering gave the anti-Charter mob a free kick. While the rejection of corporate human rights is sometimes belatedly justified by their supposed power (and hence the potential for them to ‘abuse’ human rights), that objection is scarcely applicable to all non-human entities. Since when have hospitals and health providers been deep pocketed abusers of legal rights?

O’Rourke’s reliance on the limitation of human rights to humans is transparently specious in this case. No-one’s claiming that the hospitals (e.g. the building?) have a freedom of conscience. Rather, Hart’s claim is made on behalf of the many human beings with a stake in such hospitals, including donors, managers, employees, patients and Catholics in general. Indeed, Charter s. 14(1)(b) expressly refers to people demonstrating their believes ‘as part of a community’. O’Rourke (like the VLRC) does the pro-choice side an enormous disservice by relying on a miserly technical knockout, especially one whose flaws are transparent to lay people. Liberty Victoria ought to disown this risible use of Charter s. 6(1).

O’Rourke is on much stronger ground in relation to her second argument, based on Charter s. 7(2): Continue reading

SARC on abortion

The Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee’s report into the Abortion Law Reform Bill has now been tabled in parliament and is available on the Committee’s website. Because of the Minister’s view that Charter s. 48 ruled out the application of Charter s. 28 to this Bill, SARC’s report will be the only official analysis of the Bill’s compatibility with the Charter that will be available for this week’s parliamentary debate. SARC noted some opposing considerations on this question:

The Committee observes that:

  • Charter s. 48 is limited to ‘any law applicable to abortion or child destruction’. The Bill is not (yet) law.
  • Charter s. 48 provides that nothing in the Charter ‘affects’ a law. Statements of compatibility have no legal effect.
  • Clause 10, in extending the definition of ‘serious injury’ in the Crimes Act 1958 to cover destruction of a foetus, goes beyond the current definitions of abortion and child destruction (which are presently limited to intentional conduct) to cover reckless destruction, threats to destroy, conduct causing danger of destruction, negligent destruction, and dangerous driving causing destruction of foetuses.

SARC, in any case, has a Charter reporting function under s. 17 of the Parliamentary Committees Act, which is not part of the Charter itself and therefore is not affected by Charter s. 48.

SARC’s report identified four issues of Charter concern with the Bill:

  • Decriminalisation of abortion: The Commitee observed that compatibility depends on whether or not foetuses have Charter rights (i.e. whether they are ‘human beings’ under Charter ss. 3(1) & 6(1)) and, if so, whether or not decriminalisation is a reasonable limit on any right of foetuses to have their life protected by the state under Charter s. 9. These questions are discussed by Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court, notably when unification raised the question of the constitutionality of East Germany’s very liberal abortion laws.
  • Potential criminalisation of late abortion: The Committee was concerned that the combination of: (1) provisions permitting late abortions ‘only’ where two doctors have a ‘reasonable’ belief that abortion is appropriate in the circumstances; and (2) a provision extending the criminalisation of intentional serious injury without ‘lawful excuse’ to include foetal destruction that was not in accordance with the Bill; might mean that doctors face the spectre of liability to serious prosecution if they make an unreasonable decision about the appropriateness of a late abortion. This may potentially be an unlawful interference in the right of patients to privacy under Charter s. 13(a).
  • Mandatory referrals: The Committee thought that a provision requiring doctors with a conscientious objection to refer patients seeking an abortion to doctors without such an objection might be incompatible with those doctors’ right not to be coerced away from practices informed by their beliefs under Charter s. 14(2).
  • Exemptions from the Charter: The Committee was also concerned that the extension of the definition of serious injury in the Crimes Act to include some abortions or child destructions may have the effect of exempting a number of major crimes from the Charter (pursuant to Charter s. 48).

It’ll be interesting, perhaps, to see whether the Charter features in the coming free debate and vote.

SARC on two rights quandaries

Apart from its comments on the new Evidence Bill 2008, SARC’s latest report highlights two difficult rights questions posed by bills presently before the Victorian Parliament:

First, given the right to equal protection without discrimination (including on the ground of religious belief and practice), how can Victoria have public holidays over Easter and Christmas, which make it much easier for (Western) Christians to balance work/school and religious observance than other religions?

Second, how, compatibly with human rights, can Victoria solve the problem of litigants accused of violence against someone inflicting further trauma on that person (or intimidating them into dropping their story) by personally cross-examining them? Victoria, like other jurisdictions, has passed laws stopping rape defendants from personally cross-examining rape defendants, but, unlike other jurisdictions that instead provide for the judge or a court-appointed intermediary to do the questioning on behalf of an unrepresented accused, Victoria – on the advice of its law reform commission – instead requires defendants to get a lawyer or requires Legal Aid to provide one. The new Family Violence Protection Bill extends this scheme to respondents to applications for family violence intervention orders in relation to questioning of kids, relatives, alleged victims of violence, people with mental disabilities and anyone else who may be harmed. But there are two crucial details:

  • first, presumably because there are a lot of family violence intervention applications and many unrepresented respondents, the bill permits Legal Aid to charge for the lawyer they provide, payable whenever the respondent has means (and enforceable via a charge on their property)
  • second, in common with the scheme for rape defendants, the bill provides for defendants to be told that if they don’t get a lawyer (including, if necessary, agreeing to charges from Legal Aid), then, not only can’t they cross-examine, but they also can’t give evidence contradicting the witness! This seems to be a very strict version of the rule in Browne v Dunn (an evidence law rule aimed at ensuring that parties don’t spring factual arguments on eachother.)

The combined result: respondents to many family violence intervention orders will need to pay for the right to defend themselves! Yikes. There’s no doubting the importance of the goal of stopping respondents from harassing their accusers, but this is a classic Charter s. 7(2) issue: is the remedy proportional to this goal and are there any less extreme ways of achieving it?