Public Hearing on the Review of the Victorian Human Rights Charter

By Rebecca Devitt

20 July 2011

This week the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC) has been holding public hearings into the review of the Victorian Human Rights Charter, with the Victorian Human Rights Commission and the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) telling the parliamentary committee that Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 has resulted in “more just and fair outcomes for vulnerable Victorians.”

On the first day of the public hearings, Victorian Human Rights Commissioner Helen Szoke hailed the success of the Charter and outlined the case for reform, recommending the inclusion of the right to health, housing, education and Indigenous self-determination because of their “importance to the community.”

The Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee, led by upper house Liberal MP Edward O’Donahue who has long been a critic of the Charter, has heard submissions from various legal, non-for profit and community groups on the impact of the Charter. The Police Association in its submission to the parliamentary hearing yesterday, expressed concern with the charter’s provision of rights to those with criminal convictions, which according to Police Association secretary Greg Davies  “favour the element of our community who would prey on the innocent.”

This however, has been rejected by the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) and the Victorian Bar Council who argued in their submissions that the Charter has not led to an outbreak of court rulings in favour of criminals, but has protected the rights of those who are most vulnerable in the community including the homeless and mentally ill.  The Charter has played an important role in guiding decisions by public authorities and “makes Victoria’s elected representatives accountable for any limitations on human rights.”

Representatives from the PILCH Homeless Persons Legal Centre (HPLC), Hanover Welfare Services and the Council of Homeless Persons, will be providing evidence today on the role the Charter has played in protecting vulnerable Victorians. The HPLC has used the Charter to prevent 42 people being evicted into homelessness, including 21 children.

In a joint press release, Jenny Smith, CEO of the Council for Homeless Persons said “we feel strongly that if protections are not set out in enforceable legislation, with obligations on Parliament, public authorities and the courts, we will not continue to have the positive results that the Charter has achieved, and it is likely that homelessness will increase.” Victoria Police have also acknowledged the positive impact of the charter as a platform for public accountability. The public hearing into the Victorian Human Rights Charter will continue until Friday.

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