CJRC Forum - Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities

Monash Univeristy Law Chambers

4 March 2008

7pm - 9pm

On January 1 2008, the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities came into full effect. The Charter recognises core human rights such as equality before the law, protection from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and the right to liberty and the security of the person. It requires legislation to be interpreted and public bodies to act in ways compatible with human rights. However, the Charter has been criticised as both 'lacking teeth' and giving too much power to Supreme Court Justices in determining whether laws are compatible with the Charter.

On Tuesday 4 March 2008, the CJRC held a Forum on the Effect of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. The panel of speakers (Dr. Diane Sisely, RMIT Australian Centre for Human Rights Education; Mr. David Marnie, Melbourne Citymission and Dr. Penelope Mathew, ACT Human Rights Commission) was Chaired by Mr. John Lesser (Mental Health Review Board). Nearly 20 attendees came from a range of organisations including academia and the government, non-government and not-for-profit sectors.

Dr. Sisely introduced the charter, providing a background on its development, what the language used means and how it might be used in a criminal case. She also highlighted some specific examples on the use of the charter as mentioned in Victorian newspapers.

Mr. Marnie followed Dr. Sisely's presentation with an insight into how his organisation (Melbourne Citymission) may need to undergo some culture change to be entirely compliant with the charter. He noted that much of the litigation following the implementation of the United Kingdom's charter of human rights focused on not-for-profit organisations and their provision of low-cost housing and homelessness services; a service provided by Melbourne Citymission in Victoria. David noted that whether Melbourne Citymission is a functional public authority or not may be a grey area, not for profits should aspire to act as they were one.  He noted the opportunities for his agency to strengthen its commitment to client and consumer participation. He illustrated his points with references to the work undertaken by correctional  pre and post release support services, particularly the issue of notification of prior criminal records and the notion of spent convictions.

Finally, Dr. Penelope Mathew closed the formal presentations with insights from the ACT, where a charter of human rights has been in effect since 2004 and has more recently undergone a review and subsequently amended. Dr Mathew explained that the ACT charter gives the ACT Human Rights Commission the power to audit organisations or departments for compliance with the charter. Dr. Mathew spoke about the recent audit of ACT correctional facilities. Dr. Mathew said that the audit resulted in over 90 recommendations, most of which had resulted in the ACT government's agreement. Although the response has been tabled in parliament, it has not been widely disseminated as yet.

At this point the discussion was opened to the audience. One concern was the ability for organisations to avoid becoming compliant on the grounds of economics (similarly to the environmental debate). The panel spoke about the jurisprudence which does not allow lack of resources, particularly in relation to civil and political rights, as an excuse not to implement human rights. Even in the area of economic, social and cultural rights, economic arguments are not taken at face value as excuses not to take steps to implement these rights.

Another point raised was the culture change required for organisations to become compliant. For instance, upon hearing about the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, many people react by stating Victoria (indeed Australia) does not need such a charter as we all comply with basic human rights.  In the context of a detention facility, for example, how is the law translated into practice and what sorts of processes (recruitment, training, performance review, inspection) may be required to ensure compliance?

Finally, John Lesser closed discussions and thanked the speakers and the CJRC for organising such a great event. Further informal discussions ensued over supper.

 Arrive -
 John Lesser (Chair) Mental Health Review Board
 Di Sisely RMIT University (Australian Centre for Human Rights Education)
 David Marnie Melbourne Citymission
 Pene Mathew ACT Human Rights Commission