The O'Farrell Government's overwhelming mandate for change in NSW could spark some renewed areas of focus for the legal profession. Angela Priestley reports.
The Liberal-National Coalition is celebrating its victory in the NSW election last weekend as a mandate for change across the state - if not the entire nation.
Premier Barry O'Farrell's plans for such change start with fixing the state's problematic infrastructure and go all the way to advocating a better health deal for the state and using his decisive win to fight the Federal Government on its mining tax and carbon price.
For the legal profession, if O'Farrell can deliver some productive results regarding his promise to retain infrastructure as his top priority, the effects will flow through to the infrastructure, construction and major projects practice groups of law firms.
Freehills partner David Templeman told Lawyers Weekly he is positive about the future of infrastructure in NSW given the commitments made by the Coalition in the lead-up to the election, particularly the new $700 million convention centre for Sydney.
"It's a good-size project. It's been shown from the Melbourne Convention [and Exhibition] Centre that it's something that works well as a PPP and it's something they've done a lot of work on already with industry and so forth, so hopefully it should appear as a real project shortly," he says.
"From the convention centre, I see the opportunities for work relatively soon. The other stuff will take longer but, given the lack of projects in NSW over the past few years, I guess the next one is closer to us than the last one is behind us."
O'Farrell has indicated that one of the first pieces of legislation his Government will introduce into Parliament will be the provision for an independent body to oversee infrastructure investment.
According to Templeman, this body will assist the Government in prioritising projects. "Logically that's going to take a bit of time, but knowing that convention centre is there straightaway is a sign of confidence that we're going to see a pipeline of projects in the near future."
Outside of major works, if the new Government can see through its pre-election commitments to the Law Society of NSW, then the state may also see some investment in access to justice issues - including an inquiry into the adequacy of access to justice covering legal aid, court services and staffing - as well as an investigation into resource shortages in rural and remote areas.
"In terms of how much additional money is required, I can't say," Law Society president Stuart Westgarth told Lawyers Weekly. "But the new Government has promised a review of those requirements and hopefully that review will reveal the amount of money necessary to improve the current system."
Meanwhile, Westgarth expressed encouragement in the fact that a notable "law and order auction" did not emerge from any of the major parties during the election campaign.
The new Government has also committed to continue the previous government's review of the Bail Act 1978, with the Law Society advocating that such a review should seek to simplify the Act. Regarding the controversial s22A of the Act, which the Law Society claims needs to be removed in order to reduce juveniles and the number of children spending time in custody, the Coalition says it intends to examine how its application can be exempted or limited.
Prior to the election, the Law Society also pushed for a commitment from parties that ongoing delays and backlogs of DNA analysis will be addressed. On this front, the Coalition Government has committed $10 million.
Still, there is a significant amount of uncertainty present regarding just how the change of government will impact existing laws, projects and processes in NSW. Of particular concern, says Graham Maher, a litigation partner with Truman Hoyle, is the lack of clarity regarding the recently passed Civil Procedures Act in NSW requiring parties to attempt to resolve disputes out of court before launching court proceedings.
The new legislation is due to commence today, but Maher is questioning if the change of government could lead to the Act being overthrown - as was the fate of similar legislation in Victoria by the Baillieu Government.
"There is yet no clarity on what a change of government might mean for this legislation, especially in light of the Victoria situation," says Maher.
But a number of legal commentators also see the change of government as an opportunity to overhaul existing laws affecting their practice areas and clients. One example is Robert Bryden, a partner at Brydens Compensation Lawyers who is critical of the past Labor Government's changes to tort law. In particular, he hopes to see a return of worker injury as a responsibility of the private insurance industry, a review of existing restrictions regarding the rights of injured workers, the reintroduction of a truly independent court for injured workers and a modification of harsh restrictions on injured motorists' rights.
While the Coalition Government has not fully endorsed such changes, Bryden believes the promise of an inquiry into such matters, as well as small policy announcements regarding driver safety enhancements, are a good start in the motor vehicle compensation space.
Meanwhile, in the area of OHS law, the Coalition Government has declared it will support the Commonwealth's review of such laws under the Model Work Health and Safety Bill 2009, a promise the previous government refused to commit to.
As Australian Business Lawyers & Advisors director Joe Murphy recently told Lawyers Weekly, it's yet more political change that will leave clients turning to lawyers in order to better understand the OHS reform environment. "We need to be getting the message out to our clients about changes in legislation and relevant cases," he says.
And, with yet another state changing its government and the continued uncertainty of the minority government at the federal level, it seems the role for lawyers in getting such messages out to uncertain clients will continue for some time yet.