Delays, costs hamper FOI systems

Freedom of Information laws are designed to increase government accountability by allowing citizens to access documents related to government actions. However, concerns have been raised about how effective the arrangements are. In Victoria, the FOI Commissioner is struggling to process the large volume of requests. The cost of the Commonwealth system has been criticised, after a software developer was billed $720.30 in fees to access 130 pages of correspondence—including charges for 36.12 hours of decision-making time, or more than a full working week. “I assume that most of that is boosted up and inflated in order to kind of deter people from making FOI requests”, he said. He had requested any documents referring to Stop Tony Meow, a “browser extension that replaces photos of Tony Abbott with pictures of cute kittens”. The government’s response can be viewed at Right to Know, a website that helps citizens lodge federal FOI requests.


Women barristers wear men’s wigs

Lady Hale, a judge of the UK Supreme Court (equivalent to our High Court), has objected to barristers’ traditional headwear: “I do object to wigs as being 18th century dress in the 21st century. I think it’s really very silly, is the right word, for the legal profession to think that they dignify themselves by doing this. But I have the specific objection that everybody has to wear these men’s wigs. I had a fantasy once, that on my last day of having to wear a wig in court, I would go and hire a Madame de Pompadour woman’s wig, and powder that up and put that on instead.” According to Legal Habits, a history of lawyers’ clothing: “When women were first called to the Bar in 1922 there was some debate as to whether their entitlement should extend to the wearing of wigs. It was suggested that they should revert to the Tudor-style biretta, a soft, cornered black cap, before a vote among certain senior judges decided the matter. In March 1922 it was decided that women barristers should in fact wear the wig ‘which shall completely cover and conceal the hair’.”

Britain debates judicial gender balance

In response to a report showing only 22.3% of British judges were women, the Labour Opposition is considering whether to support “quotas for female and black and ethnic minority judges … to achieve a judiciary reflecting the composition of the population”. Quotas are a controversial form of affirmative action that require a set proportion of positions to be allocated to underrepresented demographic groups. A statistical analysis of the Australian judiciary found that while there has been significant improvement in the last decade, “[n]evertheless, there is a significant distance to travel in achieving gender parity — there are still more than twice as many males as females in the judiciary.” By contrast, “61.4% of [Australian] law graduates are women.”

“Massive memory fail” brings down Premier

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell resigned last week, after it was discovered that he had failed to declare receiving a $3000 bottle of wine from a lobbyist. O’Farrell told the inquisitorial Independent Commission Against Corruption he had suffered a “massive memory fail”: he had no recollection of receiving the wine, despite making a phone call to the lobbyist the evening it was delivered, and hand-writing a thank you note. Although ICAC’s lawyers say found “no evidence of corrupt behaviour” as a result of the gift, journalists are questioning why the lobbyist was subsequently appointed to a government board. Economists say even small gifts can influence decision-makers: “we find it hard not to be nice to someone who has just been nice to us, even if we know it’s a trick.”

Liberal MPs push for optional preferential votes

A parliamentary committee has released its report on the Future of Victoria’s Electoral Administration, including a recommendation to adopt optional preferential voting for Legislative Assembly elections. Under full preferential voting, people must number every box on the ballot paper. Under an optional preferential system, voters would have to indicate their first choice, and then choose how many further preferences to allocate. The ABC’s electoral analyst, Antony Green, suggests the proposal might be driven by politics, as it would advantage the Liberal party. Although the recommendation was included in the final report, it was only supported by the two Liberal MPs on the committee. The three Labor and National MPs  submitted minority reports rejecting the plan.

Pick-axe killer guilty of defensive homicide

A Victorian woman has been acquitted of murder despite hitting her partner with a pick-axe 16 times and burying him in a shallow grave. In its closing address, the prosecution argued, “You can ask yourselves, members of the jury, … was it because she was sick of him and because she could see that there was a nicer life… just along the way[?]” Her defence was that she had suffered years of abuse and was “living in a state of sustained terror”, and that she acted in self-defence. The jury returned a guilty verdict on the alternative charge of defensive homicide, under s 9AD of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic). This form of manslaughter arises when the accused believes her conduct was necessary to prevent her death or really serious injury, but “she did not have reasonable grounds for the belief”.

Productivity Commission draft report on access to justice

The Productivity Commission has released its draft report on access to justice in the civil jurisdiction, and will now seek public feedback. The PC provides advice to the Commonwealth on economic issues. The terms of reference for its inquiry focus on the financial and social costs of the justice system, and possible reforms to improve efficiency and accessibility. For example, “The report heavily criticises time-based billing by lawyers, ­arguing that it leads to over-­servicing, rewards inefficiency and lacks certainty for clients.” One of its more unusual proposals is for “a legal expenses loan scheme which would offer income-contingent interest-free loans to people who do not qualify for public legal assistance. The person would repay the loan through contributions of a proportion of their income, or from any award of damages.”

The Castle is Aus lawyers’ favourite legal film

A survey of Australian lawyers has determined that their favourite legal film of the last 40 years is The Castle. The movie follows the Kerrigan family’s bid to prevent the compulsory acquisition of their home to build a new airport runway. It includes two famous courtroom scenes, the first involving “the vibe” of the Constitution, and the second focussed on s 51(xxxi)’s requirement that Commonwealth acquisitions of property must be “on just terms”. (In reality, neither argument would prevent their eviction—while the “special value” of the land to its owner must be considered, this “cannot be used to compensate an owner for the sentimental value of the land”.) The Castle has previously been identified as the film that “best represents the real Australia”.

Baby charged, bailed over attempted murder

A nine-month-old baby in Pakistan has been granted bail on an attempted murder charge. His whole family was charged over an alleged stone-throwing incident. The baby’s grandfather told reporters, “Everyone in the court was saying ‘How can such a small child be implicated in any case’? What kind of police do we have?” Article 40 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires governments to establish “a minimum age below which children shall be presumed not to have the capacity to infringe the penal law”. The minimum age of criminal responsibility in Australian jurisdictions is 10 years old, with a rebuttable presumption against responsibility between 10 and 14.

Rogue stenographer fills transcript with gibberish

A New York City courtroom stenographer was fired after ruining the official record of 30 criminal trials with gibberish. “He hit random keys or wrote, ‘I hate my job. I hate my job. I hate my job,’ over and over”, instead of transcribing dialogue. Judges have been forced to call everyone involved in the cases to give evidence of what they remember. Criminal proceedings in Victorian courts are digitally recorded as well as being transcribed by the Victorian Government Recording Service.