Justice Legislation Amendment (Access To Justice) Bill 2018 Second Reading

1 May 2018

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I rise briefly to speak to the Justice Legislation Amendment (Access to Justice) Bill 2018. This has a number of elements. This bill seeks primarily to implement 16 of the recommendations made in the 2015 Access to Justice Review. It also importantly ends the requirement of what is called forced divorce for transgender people wanting to change the sex marker on their birth certificate. I will address just two of the issues in the access to justice part of this bill.

The review found that current state and federal funding levels for legal aid are insufficient to meet demand. Legal aid is an important institution, and access to justice is a really important principle for making our justice system work effectively. Victoria Legal Aid has noted that demand is expected to increase further. As this government goes down the route of introducing stricter bail and sentencing laws as well as having more police numbers, we are going to see greater demand on legal aid. The initiatives outlined in the bill may only just scratch the surface of what is actually required.

Whilst it is promoting some efficiencies, it contains only one measure that will directly increase income for Victoria Legal Aid’s services, which is increasing the Public Purpose Fund revenue allocated to legal aid from 35 to 40 per cent. Whilst that is helpful, this change will deliver only a small increase in additional annual funding. We note that Victoria Legal Aid did post a financial deficit in the 2016–17 financial year. This bill will only be truly successful if funding meets the unprecedented and increasing demand for legal services.

I also address the requirement to ensure that Victoria Legal Aid maintains its independence under the new reporting and planning requirements in this bill. This bill seeks to strengthen legal aid’s strategic planning capacity, establishing a planning committee and requiring it to publish its strategic and annual work plans after formal consultation with the Attorney-General. Whilst planning by legal aid is of course supported, we do want to make sure that this bill does not go too far in formalising the Attorney-General’s oversight and approval of legal aid’s strategy and planning. It is important that whilst there is collaboration, legal aid does retain its independence.

Moving on to the forced divorce provisions in the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1996, this bill ends those. They follow on from a requirement from the changes to the federal Marriage Act 1961 and the achievement of marriage equality. The issue that it is addressing is that under the current Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act it is required that a transgender person wanting to change the sex marker on their birth certificate to the gender they identify as be unmarried or divorce their partner. This essentially forces a person to choose between their gender identity and their partner, which is an unconscionable choice. It should have been removed previously in this Parliament under the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016 that was brought before this house. It was not; that bill was defeated in the upper house. It was a horrendous debate, a debate that I hope will not be repeated again. I really do hope that not just this particular part of the bill but the entire bill is passed by the upper house without some of the horrendous debate we saw last time when issues like this were debated.

That said, this does come on the back of a really great celebration of marriage equality having been achieved here in Australia. That is a change that so many people worked so hard for so long to achieve. The provisions in that federal bill include that in the 12 months to December of this year the states end the requirement of forced divorce or else they will be in breach of federal sex discrimination law.

We certainly welcome this change. It will have such a profound impact on the lives of so many transgender people. One example is of course Greens Victorian Senator Janet Rice and her partner Penny, who transitioned over a decade after they married but is unable to affirm her gender on her birth certificate. Their story will be like those of so many others across this state who will benefit from this change. Issues like this go to show that even though we have achieved marriage equality in Australia there is still unfinished business when it comes to LGBTI equality and law reform. On that note, the Greens will be supporting this bill.

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