PRIVACY IS the big issue moving forward for the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), having already tackled sedition, evidence and sentencing provisions in the past year.
Following the release of the ALRC Report for 2005/2006, president Professor David Weisbrot has set his sights on harmonising privacy law.
“One of the biggest problems in privacy is that every state and territory, and the Commonwealth, has its own privacy laws, and then we have a number of jurisdictions, like NSW and Victoria, that have separate health privacy laws,” he said.
The aim of the inquiry is “simplification, streamlining, and then of course bringing that up to date to match the new electronic world.”
The call for simplification of privacy laws has come as much from the business community as lawyers who work in the field.
“We had a lot of people … in the business community come to us and say: ‘look we take privacy seriously as citizens, and we also know that our customers want us to take this very seriously, but the law is so complicated that we can’t even work out what we’re supposed to do’,” he said.
The ALRC will release a draft report with proposals of reform by June or July next year, and is calling on members of the profession to make submissions. The final report is due in March 2008.
The sedition legislation under the new anti-terror laws marked the quickest review by the ALRC thus far.
“I think the shortest project we had ever done was about a year. And we did sedition in five months,” Weisbrot said.
“So we were pretty flat out, and we were doing that at the same time we were doing sentencing, and also beginning privacy. So it was a very busy time for us, but we managed it.”
Although the Senate Committee advised that the ALRC review the law first, the Government rushed the legislation in, then referred it for review — a process Weisbrot described as “unusual”.
“There had been a lot of debate and a lot of submissions at the parliamentary stage, [so] we could really hit the ground running,” he said.
But according to Weisbrot, the sedition laws were not nearly as defective as many in the media believed.
“The legislation wasn’t nearly as bad, or as draconian, as a lot of the media comments suggested early in the debate,” he said.
“A lot of what we had to do was just calm people down, and say ‘this is what it does, and this is what it says, this is how it has changed over time’. And most of those changes are for the good,” he said.
The sedition report also involved recommendations to further improve the law.
“The basics for us were to try to create a brighter line between freedom of speech — which we say should be protected and to a very high level — and where people cross the line into criminal behaviour,” he said.
“That report is still sitting with the Government ... it’s only been a couple of months [and] they haven’t formally responded yet,” he said. “Whereas with evidence they basically gave that a big tick quite early on.”
In terms of the Evidence Inquiry, Weisbrot said the ALRC is “very optimistic that we’re moving to a uniform approach”.
“The Act itself only needed a small amount of tidying up. There basically would be about 10 or 15 years of experience with it in the states and territories that have used it — which is about half of them.
“What we did was make sure that we found the four, five or six areas that were sticking points, and we made recommendations to improve those,” he said.
“And then the idea was, if there are no longer any sticking points, and really we need a national approach to evidence law, then hopefully the other states and territories will come on board.”