“It is to be hoped that all Australian jurisdictions will eventually see their way clear to join [the Uniform Law],” the Chief Justice said.
“Accession to the Uniform Law is, of course, a matter for each jurisdiction,” he added.
The judge likened the transition to a uniform model for the Australian legal profession to a moment in transport history when the critical decision was made to standardise spacing between railway tracks.
“Like the standard gauge railway, it is an important micro-economic reform and should enhance our national capacity to engage in useful discussions with other jurisdictions in relation to cross-border provision of legal services following the coming into effect of Free Trade Agreements,” Chief Justice French said.
The remarks were made as part of a ‘State of the Australian Judicature’ address delivered by the Chief Justice in Hobart. He reflected on a number of topics which underscored the virtues of judicial independence, championing the rule of law and promoting social justice.
Australia’s judiciary is one “that, generally speaking, has the confidence of the people and endeavours, within the limits of its resources, to be reasonably accessible to those who have a genuine need for its remedies,” Chief Justice French said.
Using hallmarks provided by Sir Gerard Brennan in his 1997 delivery of the same address, Chief Justice French said that the Australian judiciary “continued to meet the reference points of success”. Among those points the Chief Justice identified were features of impartiality, independence and fearlessness in applying the law.
The Chief Justice further discussed issues in the wider public interest that bodies in the legal profession have taken on. He used the example of mandatory minimum sentencing for alcohol-related offences and its adverse impact on Australia’s rate of indigenous incarceration.
“The Law Council has called for a Senate Inquiry into the topic. The Australian Bar Association has pointed out that indigenous Australians are imprisoned at rates at least 16 times higher than non-indigenous Australians,” Chief Justice French said.
“The public debate about such laws is one to which the profession, through its representative bodies and supported by the knowledge and experience of its members, can contribute.”
He added: “[Both bodies] recognise that a nuanced approach, including the concept of justice reinvestment, is required to which they are prepared to contribute in order to assess this national tragedy”.
Chief Justice French also remarked on the profession’s efforts to tackle the scourge of family violence.
Other topics canvassed included the encroachment of federal legislation on traditional rights, freedoms and privileges recognised under common law.
Initiatives being undertaken by the Council of Chief Justices and the Judicial Council were also given particular attention in the talk.
The address was co-hosted by the Law Council of Australia and Australian Bar Association. It was the second such talk the judge has given during his term as Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia and the 16th State of the Australian Judicature address.
Chief Justice French will retire from his position in January next year – just shy of his 70th birthday and the mandatory retirement age for judges in Australia.