Methods of Proving Aboriginal Customary Laws

627. Approaches to Reform. Existing rules relating to the admissibility of evidence can create difficulties for the proof of Aboriginal customary laws. In some cases these difficulties have been avoided by informality in presentation of evidence, and by the absence of any objection from counsel opposing, or because the tribunal concerned has operated informally, without strictly applying the rules of evidence. But in other cases evidence of Aboriginal customary laws has been able to be admitted only by ingenious efforts to bring it within exceptions to the hearsay rule. This Commission’s recommendations in its Evidence Reference are relevant to this question. However that Reference deals only with federal courts. Specific reform of the law of evidence as it relates to the proof of Aboriginal customary laws in State and Territory courts may be necessary. One approach would be to follow the Papua New Guinea Customs Recognition Act, s 2(2)(a) of which dispenses with ‘strict legal procedure’ and the ‘technical rules of evidence’ in the proof of custom.[663] Both Australian and overseas experience shows the need for flexibility and a degree of informality in this area. Excluding the rules of evidence (at least as binding rules, since they might remain relevant as guides to the reliability of evidence) would seem both a simple and a comprehensive solution. However it is necessary first to examine in more detail the present law, and any obstacles it poses to proof of Aboriginal customary laws and traditions. The law of evidence is intended to facilitate rather than to hamper the process of trial, by allowing relevant material to be placed before the court and excluding material which is likely to be unreliable or excessively prejudicial. It is also intended to make the trial process more efficient, by saving time and cost. Excluding the law of evidence would have the disadvantage of leaving arguments about admissibility unstructured, and depriving the courts of the assistance which satisfactory rules might give. Only if the existing rules, however modified to assist with proof of Aboriginal customary laws, can be shown to be wholly unsuitable for present purposes, would their wholesale exclusion be appropriate.