From Drink Driving to Gene Patents: The ALRC celebrates 30 years

Wednesday, 8 June 2005: One of Australia’s leading legal institutions, the Australian Law Reform Commission, celebrates its 30th anniversary this week.

“Over the past 30 years, the ALRC has initiated community debate and provided advice to Government on issues as diverse as drink driving, Aboriginal customary laws, human tissue transplants, maritime law, sentencing, and protecting classified and security sensitive information,” ALRC President David Weisbrot said today.

“The work ranges from the modernisation of old laws to ‘over the horizon’ projects like gene patenting and the protection of human genetic information, where the ALRC works with leading scientists and policy makers to identify innovative solutions to complex problems.

“Often this involves breaking new ground internationally—for example, Dr Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, praised the ALRC’s work on human genetic information as “ truly phenomenal … placing Australia ahead of what the rest of the world is doing”.

Prof Weisbrot said: “Given the range and complexity of the ALRC’s inquiries, it is remarkable that 84% of our reports have been substantially or partially implemented. This success has no doubt been assisted by the fact that we are careful to provide advice that is practical, and that the ALRC has always attracted some of Australia’s best legal minds.

“Just look at the first Commission in 1975—which was chaired by Michael Kirby (now a High Court Justice); and included Sir Gerard Brennan (later the Chief Justice of the High Court); Gareth Evans (later Foreign Minister and federal Attorney-General); and John Cain (later Victorian Premier).”

Other well-known alumni of the ALRC include Sir Zelman Cowan, NSW Chief Justice James Spigelman, Sir Maurice Byers, the first Chief Judge of the Family Court Elizabeth Evatt, HREOC President John von Doussa and Justices Murray Wilcox, Tim Smith, Bruce Debelle and Ian Coleman.

“The ALRC has always maintained a deep commitment to community consultation, giving the general public a say in how the law should be reformed. Things that are considered standard practice today—the use of public meetings, surveys and questionnaires; engaging the media to stimulate public debate; the use of honorary experts from a range of disciplines; and the distribution of free consultation papers—were methods pioneered by the ALRC.

“The next 30 years will provide a series of new challenges caused by the continued growth in electronic communications, rapid developments in science and technology, enormous demographic changes and the evolution of the global economy. The ALRC will continue to provide the community with workable solutions to the challenges these changes will present,” Prof Weisbrot said.

The ALRC’s 30th anniversary celebrations centre on a one-day symposium, entitled The Promise of Law Reform, followed by a gala dinner to be held in Sydney tomorrow.

The symposium brings together a field of distinguished commentators from Australia and overseas—including Sir Anthony Mason, Justice Ron Sackville, Senator Marise Payne, former NSW Attorney-General John Hannaford, journalists Richard Ackland and David Solomon, and law reform commission chairs Justice Bruce Robertson (New Zealand), Justice Roslyn Atkinson (Queensland), Professor Marcia Neave (Victoria) and Professor Weisbrot.