A number of legal bodies have condemned Federal Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s latest comments regarding the judiciary, saying the “improper” and “totally inappropriate” claims have undermined Australia’s judges and magistrates, as well as the rule of law at large.
Speaking to Victorian talkback radio station 3AW recently, Mr Dutton blamed the state’s crime statistics on “civil libertarians”, saying that there was a “problem with some of the judges and magistrates” and some of the bail decisions and conditions many have made.
In the same interview Mr Dutton also accused the judiciary of handing down “soft sentences”.
“The solution, in part, is to make sure that the appointments that you’re making to the magistrates’ court are people who will impose sentences and will provide some deterrence to people repeatedly coming before the courts,” the Federal Home Affairs Minister said.
“So if you’re appointing civil libertarians to the magistrates’ court over a long period of time, then you will get soft sentences.”
Since the comments, a number of bodies within the Australian legal community have come out critical of Mr Dutton.
The Australian Bar Association (ABA) said that “political attacks on the judiciary undermines the independence, integrity and impartiality of Australia’s legal system”.
“The Australian Bar Association has the highest respect for the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary across Australia and is very concerned by recent political attacks on the Victorian judiciary,” ABA president, Mr Noel Hutley SC, said.
“Attacks on judicial officers undermine democracy and the rule of law and erode public confidence in the courts.
“The reputation of the judiciary of Victoria for integrity and independence is both entirely justified and vital to the maintenance of the rule of law.
“While this abuse is not a threat to that integrity or independence due to the quality of the judges, it is improper that a Federal Minister would engage in it.”
Mr Hutley added that “Australia’s democracy relies upon mutual respect between the governing and judging branches of the government”.
“Courts should be free from unfounded political criticism,” he explained.
The Law Institute of Victoria noted that it too was extremely concerned by “ongoing political attacks” on the state’s judges, magistrates and the legal profession.
“These political attacks are totally inappropriate and without foundation,” the LIV said in a statement.
“There is no place for political attacks on the judiciary and undermining the independence of our judges and magistrates.
“The community can have absolute trust in the judiciary and the legal profession in Victoria.”
The LIV was backed up by the Law Council of Australia who said it backed “colleagues at the Law Institute of Victoria in defending the rule of law, particularly the independence of the judiciary”.
LCA president Morry Bailes added that the attacks on Victorian judges were not useful and eroded public confidence in the judiciary.
“The Law Council shares the views of the Law Institute of Victoria. There is no place for political attacks on the judiciary undermining the independence of judges and magistrates,” Mr Bailes said.
“It is understood that in our free society informed comment on judicial decisions is part of normal discourse, but politicised criticism undermines the foundations of the democratic system which must be closely guarded by all, especially those in government.
“Judges and magistrates are experts in the law and to ensure the separation of powers must be allowed to perform their duty without interference and unwarranted criticism.”
In conclusion, Mr Bailes said the LCA hopes all Australians “understand the value of an independent judiciary and the importance of upholding the rule of law in legal decision-making”.
This is not the first time Mr Dutton has come under fire in Australia’s legal profession for his comments on talkback radio.
In June last year, the LCA slammed Mr Dutton following comments he made to Sydney radio station 2GB which questioned the independence of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Then, in August, Mr Dutton drew sharp criticism from lawyers around Australia again after he called pro bono legal services to refugees and asylum seekers “un-Australian” and an unfair imposition to the taxpayer.