FEDERAL ATTORNEY-GENERAL Philip Ruddock has called for continued law reform and a swifter implementation of national legal profession plans while defending his own role in the face of criticism from the Opposition.
Speaking at the Australian Legal Convention on Sunday, Ruddock flagged personal property securities, family law, copyright, bankruptcy reforms and native title as challenging areas of reform, with the overarching issue of harmonisation through a national profession of primary concern.
Criticisms were made of Ruddock following Senator Joe Ludwig’s acceptance of the shadow Attorney-General position earlier in the month after Kelvin Thomson’s hasty retirement from the role over the Tony Mokbel affair.
Ludwig told Lawyers Weekly that rather than attack the Labor Party’s accountability processes, Ruddock should examine “his own backyard”, including what he said were the conflicting positions of first law officer and national security spokesman for the Coalition Government.
“These two roles are quite frankly conflicted and incompatible. One you have him championing human rights and on the other strenuously enforcing terrorism laws in this country,” Ludwig said.
However, Ruddock said in the introduction to Sunday’s speech that he was disappointed to have read that his “opponents see a conflict in the Attorney being responsible not only for our personal safety but also for human rights”.
“I see no such conflict because the most basic of human rights is that for human security and safety — the right to life,” Ruddock said.
“Attorneys-General over the years have had to balance the role of protecting the community with the protection of the rights of individuals,” he said. “I accept September 11 has raised the stakes for the Attorney, but that’s no reason to abdicate responsibility for either human rights or personal safety and national security.”
Ruddock also spoke of 11 years of “very significant” law reform, and advised Attorneys that they “should not be uttering motherhood statements [rather] they should be grasping the opportunity afforded to a chief law officer to make a difference to people’s lives”.
One such opportunity, “the most fundamental law reform in the next decade”, is the harmonising of state and territory jurisdictions across the nation, though Ruddock views efforts made thus far as merely a qualified success.
If Australia is to become a hub for legal services, Ruddock believes the Government must be able to sell the country as an attractive place to do legal business free from the weight of jurisdictional differences.
Last month the United States Conference of Chief Justices resolved to open access to Australian lawyers to the US legal system, including the possibility of allowing Australian university graduates to sit American bar exams.
“When I talk to my overseas counterparts and ask them to remove barriers in their jurisdictions — particularly in relation to the admission of Australians to practise in their jurisdiction — I find it unsatisfactory that they can point to our own differences.
“I will not regard Australia as having a truly national profession until lawyers can move freely between the states without having to check the Legal Profession Act for differences,” he said.