Role, governance arrangements and statutory responsibilities

4. The vast majority of the 23 submissions made to the inquiry, including from the Attorney-General’s Department, restate and support the importance of an independent law reform body, with appropriate levels of funding to continue to produce the high quality work that has characterised the ALRC for the past 35 years.

5. The ALRC’s role, governance arrangements and statutory responsibilities are set out in its enabling legislation, the Australian Law Reform Commission Act 1996 (Cth). The ALRC’s function is to inquire into and report on matters referred to it by the Attorney-General, with a view to reforming Commonwealth laws and harmonising Commonwealth, state and territory laws. The ALRC strongly believes that its historical structure, expertise, reputation and history make it ideally suited to performing this function. Support for the ALRC to conduct this function was consistently expressed in submissions to the Inquiry.

6. Many submissions also note the very high rate of implementation of ALRC recommendations—over 90% of ALRC reports have been substantially implemented as of June 2010. This is proof of both the relevance of the ALRC’s recommendations to government and the general Australian community, and the effectiveness of the processes that lead to the recommendations. The importance of the ALRC’s research has also been noted in several submissions from academics and from the Federal Court. These submissions speak to the high value provided by the evidence base of the ALRC’s research and the enduring value of its reports.

7. In its preliminary submission, the ALRC argued in favour of an independent law reform agency and the value of law reform, at arm’s length from government and party politics, and free from special interest or lobby groups. Support for independent law reform has been expressed by many of the submissions to the Inquiry.

8. In early 2010, the Attorney-General advised that, following an assessment against the recommendations of the Review of the Corporate Governance of Statutory Authorities and Officeholders (Uhrig Review) and the Government’s policy on governance arrangements for agencies, the ALRC should operate under an executive management model, subject to amendment of the Australian Law Reform Commission Act 1996 (Cth). This involved changing the ALRC’s governance framework from the Commonwealth Authorities & Companies Act 1997 (Cth) (CAC Act) to become a prescribed agency under the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997(Cth) (FMA Act) and making it a statutory agency under the Public Service Act 1999 (Cth). As part of this transition, the ALRC met with the Attorney-General’s Department to discuss a number of changes to the ALRC Act with specific reference to its governance arrangements and other matters.

9. This transition was effected on 17 December with the enactment of the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Act 2010 (Cth). Amendments to the ALRC Act are now law, and commence on 1 July 2011.

10. One significant change to the ALRC’s governance is that it will not retain its body corporate status and—instead of having its own Board of Management, currently consisting of the full-time and part-time members of the ALRC—the ALRC may be managed by a management advisory committee appointed by the Attorney-General. The ALRC argued that a management advisory committee, as envisaged in the drafting instructions, was undesirable and requested the Department seriously to reconsider this model. The ALRC considered that such a committee was unnecessary, given the small size of the organisation and its well defined roles and functions. Moreover, because the committee would be appointed by the Attorney-General, the ALRC questioned whether this would compromise the intellectual independence of the ALRC and argued that it was important not only that the ALRC is able to act independently of government, but that it is perceived to be independent. As a result of these discussions, although the amended ALRC Act did include the management advisory committee, an express provision was added that the committee must not attempt to compromise the independence or impartiality of the ALRC in any way—ALRC Act s 27 (2).

11. The importance of the independent status of the ALRC was raised in several submissions and is fundamental to the ALRC’s ability to add value to the Government’s law reform agenda.