MS TIERNEY (Minister for Training and Skills) (18:49:26) — As previous speakers have outlined, this is an omnibus bill that makes a number of important changes to various justice-related pieces of legislation, and I will not go through them because they have been canvassed to a significant extent, but I can touch on the coronial appeal reforms. The reforms to appeals and reviews in the coronial jurisdiction represent one of the outcomes of the Coronial Council of Victoria review commissioned by the Attorney-General. Families involved in the coronial system, such as the families of Phoebe Handsjuk and Melissa Ryan, have been tireless advocates for these changes.
We have heard from the opposition that, in their view, while these reforms are a step in the right direction they do not go far enough. We believe the amendments in the bill implement all of the legislative recommendations made by the Coronial Council of Victoria in its report on appeals from the coronial jurisdiction. The government is proud to have acted quickly to respond to the review. We want to ensure that we do all we can to support families in the coronial jurisdiction. That is why, under the government’s amendments passed in the Assembly, these amendments will be subject to a statutory review in three years to make sure that they have achieved their intention.
The opposition also raised the non-legislative recommendations of the coronial council, in particular the recommendations relating to establishing a client advocacy office, a legal advice service and a restorative justice program. The government is giving serious consideration to these recommendations, noting that they will have systemic and funding implications on which consultation will be required. In respect to emergency worker sentencing reforms, we understand that the opposition has indicated, in its view, that the reforms to sentencing for attacks on emergency services workers should have gone further, particularly in tightening the special reasons exemption to statutory minimum sentences.
The opposition has also raised a number of specific issues with the scope of the special reasons as modified by the bill and with the drafting used to achieve the objective of narrowing these provisions. The government considers the language used in the bill will give simple and clear guidance to courts in determining whether special reasons apply. We believe it is false to assert, as the opposition has, that it would be very easy to avoid the application of a statutory minimum sentence. This bill significantly tightens special reasons and will ensure that statutory minimum sentences will overwhelmingly apply in most cases, and it is appropriate to retain a very limited exception for remarkable extenuating circumstances.
In relation to the Greens and Fiona Patten’s Reason Party, they have indicated that they oppose the reforms to sentencing for offences of injuring emergency services workers. The Greens argue that the courts should have complete sentencing discretion in all cases to choose an appropriate outcome and that these reforms interfere with their independence, but these reforms do maintain appropriate judicial discretion. It is true that the courts will be required to impose a minimum sentence or a custodial sentence in more cases; this is the intent of the reforms. Where an offender can demonstrate that they have special reasons, a court will not have to impose a statutory minimum sentence or a custodial order for a category 2 offence.
The Greens and the Reason Party have described these reforms as mandatory sentencing, which they are not. Statutory minimum sentences are not required to be applied where special reasons exist. The courts retain discretion to set appropriate sentences above the statutory minimum. The Greens party further argues that the statutory minimum sentences will not act as a deterrent, particularly in relation to a person with a mental impairment, and will not reduce attacks. The Reason Party has argued that these reforms will not be an effective deterrent against attacks on emergency workers. I think this misses the point. Violence against paramedics must never be tolerated, and those who commit these awful crimes must face the toughest penalties. It is not acceptable that those who protect and care for us when we are at our most vulnerable are assaulted and abused just for doing their job.
The Greens party have said that these reforms will have an impact on vulnerable persons such as young people, Aboriginal people and those with mental health issues. This is not the position of the government. The government, through the emergency worker harm reference group, will monitor the implementation of the reforms to ensure there are no unintended consequences. The Greens party have said that these reforms create a hierarchy of victims, whereby attacks on some people are treated differently to others.
In the view of the government what the laws do is recognise the nature of emergency services work. Emergency and custodial workers keep us safe, perform critical response duties on behalf of the Victorian community and also perform a unique role in the supervision and management of offenders who pose a risk to the community in high-pressure, closed environments. It is appropriate to recognise the unique risk of occupational violence that confronts these workers.
The Greens and the Reason Party have stated that these reforms will deter people, particularly victims of family violence, from calling police and other emergency workers. The government simply disputes this. The reforms in this bill that aim to better protect our emergency workers are not expected to deter family violence victims from contacting the police. Statutory minimum sentences already apply where a person injures a police officer or another emergency worker. The government remains strongly committed to addressing family violence, which is one of the most significant issues in our community, and our biggest law and order challenge.
Finally, the Greens party argue that the changes will prevent Aboriginal people from accessing the Koori Court. It is not expected that these changes will impact on or deter people from utilising the Koori Court. Offenders who meet the eligibility criteria will still be able to engage with the court. The Reason Party has also argued that the judicial system has the capacity to self-correct by way of appeals against sentence, but the bill recognises this by strengthening the rights of the Director of Public Prosecutions to appeal where special reasons are found.
With respect to estate agent commissions, the opposition has queried what the government has done to address situations where any party faces a detriment by way of legal costs which will be lost because they were vindicating their rights. Legal costs are ultimately a matter for the courts to determine. Parties who enter into legal proceedings generally do so in awareness of the costs involved and that costs may be awarded against them. The amendments apply to all sales authorities entered into before the day the bill receives royal assent. Any legal proceedings commenced before 9 June 2018, the date on which the amendments were announced, will also be affected by the remedial provisions. Subject to the passage of these amendments estate agents may have the right to recover costs from vendors who have taken action against them. Vendor rights of action will be extinguished.
With respect to custody notifications for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people taken into custody, the bill amends the Crimes Act 1958 to require an investigating officer to inform the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service when an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is taken into custody. Notification assists in decreasing preventable injuries and deaths in police cell custody, increasing legal and health protections for a person in police cell custody, and promoting family and community safety. The opposition has raised queries regarding how a person taken into custody will be identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and who will make this assessment. The notification required largely reflects current notification processes in the Victoria Police manual. The bill provides that in forming an opinion that a person is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander the investigating officer must take into account any statements made by the person in custody. It also provides that the investigating officer must ask the person whether they are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander as soon as practicable after they are taken into custody and in any event before any questioning starts.
In relation to the amendments that are before the house this evening, the government will not oppose the amendments to be moved by Dr Carling-Jenkins, and with respect to the other amendment that is to be moved by Ms Pennicuik, the government will not be supporting that amendment. I look forward to the committee stage, and I thank all members for their contributions to this debate.