On 23 November 2010 the Senate referred an Inquiry into the Australian Law Reform Commission to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee. Senator Guy Barnett, Chair of the Senate Committee, chaired this Inquiry. At the beginning of the process he stated that ‘over the last three years the ALRC’s resources have been stripped disproportionately to government outlays, which is putting serious law reform at risk in this country … It is time to again review the ALRC as Australia’s premier law reform agency to ensure that it continues its vital work and maintains its reputation as a world leader.’ It was also noted that the last review into the ALRC was in 1994 and it was now timely to consider the role and functions of the ALRC.
Members of the Committee were:
- Senator Guy Barnett, Chair, LP, TAS
- Senator Patricia Crossin, Deputy Chair, ALP, NT
- Senator Mark Furner, ALP, QLD
- Senator Scott Ludlam, AG, WA
- Senator Stephen Parry, LP, TAS
- Senator Russell Trood, LP, QLD
This Inquiry gave the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee the opportunity to explore the impact of the budget cuts, and the governance and financial management changes on the ALRC. The Inquiry considered the following:
- the ALRC’s role, governance arrangements and statutory responsibilities;
- the adequacy of ALRC staffing and resources to meet its objectives;
- best practice examples of like organisations interstate and overseas;
- the appropriate allocation of functions between the ALRC and other statutory agencies; and
- other related matters.
The Committee called for submissions and also held public hearings in Canberra on 11 February and 3 March 2011, at which ALRC President, Professor Rosalind Croucher, gave evidence.
The Committee received 24 submissions from various individuals and organisations over the course of the Inquiry. The ALRC prepared a preliminary submission in December 2011 to provide summary information about the ALRC’s history and resourcing. The ALRC also made available, on its website, a scanned copy of the 1994 Report. The ALRC made a final submission to the Inquiry in mid-February, taking into account other submissions and the evidence presented at face to face hearings. A Hansard transcript of the witness presentations is available through http://www.aph.gov.au/hansard.
On 31 March 2011, the Committee tabled an Interim Report which stated that the Committee required more time to consider the issues raised in the Inquiry, and a Final Report was tabled on 8 April 2011.
The Final Report of the Committee made the following recommendations:
- Recommendation 1
The committee recommends that the Australian Government restore the ALRC’s budget cuts for the period 2010–11 to 2013–14 as a matter of urgency.
- Recommendation 2
The committee recommends that the ALRC Act be amended to provide for a minimum of two standing, fixed-term (not inquiry-specific), full-time commissioners.
- Recommendation 3
The committee recommends that an additional full-time commissioner be appointed for each additional inquiry referred to the ALRC, in circumstances where the ALRC already has two or more ongoing inquiries.
- Recommendation 4
The committee recommends that the ALRC’s public information and education services program be resumed immediately.
- Recommendation 5
The committee recommends that the ALRC be provided with all necessary resources to enable it to continue to travel to undertake face to face consultations as part of its inquiry processes.
The Report also included a minority report from Government Senators. The Government Senators stated that the Australian Government strongly supported the work of the ALRC and that ‘the changes to the ALRC’s structure introduced by the FFLA Act will improve the ALRC’s flexibility to respond to circumstances as required, and will enhance the ALRC’s ability to undertake expert analysis through access to subject-matter expert commissioners for specific inquiries’. Government Senators also believed that ‘the ALRC is adequately resourced to undertake its important functions, particularly in light of the Attorney-General Department’s ongoing commitment to assist the ALRC and ensure that it is adequately resourced.’
The Senate Inquiry provided an opportunity to fully review the operations and achievements of the ALRC, particularly over the past fifteen years, and it was extremely important to record the bi-partisan support for the ALRC as an independent body and the recognition of the importance of law reform to the democratic processes of an open and transparent government. Noting the success of the ALRC’s prior reports in terms of their implementation, the high quality of its work and its national and international reputation for best practice law reform, there was also almost unanimous support from submitters for the ALRC to continue its role in its current form and for the ALRC to be properly resourced to do so.
The Government released its response to the Inquiry on 8 July 2011. Although the Government did not accept any of the recommendations of the Committee, it did put on record its ‘strong support for the work of the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC)’ and stated that it ‘agrees with the Senate Committee’s assessment that the ALRC’s work is widely respected.’ The Government’s response concluded:
As it approaches forty years at the forefront of law reform in this country, the Government believes the ALRC is well equipped to respond to new challenges and opportunities. The Government has an ambitious law reform agenda and is confident the ALRC will make a significant contribution to that agenda.
It was very heartening to note the Government’s public statements of support of the ALRC and its decision to provide transitional funding to allow for the appointment of a full-time Commissioner for the National Classification Review, plus secondment of a Senior Policy Officer from the Classification Branch, Attorney-General’s Department, to be part of the Inquiry team.
‘The Court recognises the considerable contribution that the ALRC has made to the betterment of the legal system in Australia, especially by its reported research and analysis … the ALRC’s published work contributes to the high quality of judicial decision making in this court. The high quality of judicial decisions benefits not only the litigants directly bound by the decisions but also the whole Australian community.’Submission by the Federal Court of Australia to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee Inquiry into the ALRC.