Ministers’ criticism of judiciary in terrorism cases undermines sepa
13th Jun 2017
Commonwealth Ministers’ criticism of Victorian terrorism rulings is extremely concerning, as it attacks the fundamental separation of powers underpinning the Australian system of justice, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.
Several Turnbull government ministers have today accused the Victorian courts of being too soft on terror offenders, with one minister saying Victorian judges had "eroded any trust that remained in our legal system".
ALA National President Tony Kenyon rejected the comments from the Turnbull government, saying these attacks are typical of a wider push by politicians to take the dispensation of justice away from the courts.
Mr Kenyon said the Victorian judiciary existed to interpret the law without fear or favour, and that the ALA supported the courts, and judges in particular, for the exemplary manner in which they carried out their responsibilities.
“Politicians should be supporting judges, who do an excellent job under pressure, often in circumstances where they are under-resourced,” Mr Kenyon said.
“Judges do an exemplary job of finding fair sentences. They should never be placed under political pressure, particularly in this fashion where it appears that Commonwealth Ministers are simply trying to score cheap political points.
“The separation of powers is absolutely fundamental to our system of government,” Mr Kenyon said.
“Parliament makes the laws and the courts implement them. This system of justice protects and enforces the rights and responsibilities that we all enjoy in Australia. While judges have the utmost integrity and are unlikely to be influenced, it is absolutely outrageous for politicians to seek to undermine the independence of our courts in this way.”
“The reality is that no one knows the facts as well as the judges who hear the cases,” Mr Kenyon said. “It is not appropriate for members of parliament to second guess judges, who have pored over evidence for hours or days.
“This is plainly a partisan political attack. Why is the federal health minister, social services minister and assistant treasurer even engaged on this issue?
“The Health Minister, Greg Hunt, said ‘The state courts should not be places for ideological experiments in the face of global and local threats from Islamic extremism that has led to such tragic losses.’ The same criticisms can be levied at Mr Hunt,” Mr Kenyon said. “He is engaging in ideological experiments by suggesting that longer prison sentences are more appropriate. If Mr Hunt truly believes that, he should provide the evidence.”
“Alan Tudge told the media ‘I don't think the Australian people can say you can have a tough enough terrorism sentence, in my view." However, in the ALA’s view, the aim of law enforcement should be to punish criminal acts and keep the community safe,” Mr Kenyon said.
“Sentences should only be tough if they need to be, based on the severity of the crime committed and the threat posed to the community by any particular individual. Sentencing people to longer prison terms could in fact give rise to greater risk, if they feel they have nothing left to lose and a lot of anger toward the community and the government as a result of the long sentence.
Mr Kenyon said that only those who pose a genuine threat should be punished, and that judges are best placed to assess that.
“Far from judges eroding the trust of the people, as suggested by Assistant Minister to the Treasurer Michael Sukkar, it is political statements like these that undermine trust and community cohesion,” Mr Kenyon said.
“As Justice Beech-Jones of the NSW Supreme Court said, "The only statements that serve to undermine confidence in the legal system were those of the ministers and not of the court’,” Mr Kenyon said.
Mr Kenyon said he agreed entirely with Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula’s suggestion that federal Attorney-General George Brandis should ‘counsel his colleagues that these reckless attempts to strong arm the courts border on contempt, and have the potential to jeopardise proceedings’.
“The ALA also agrees entirely with comments by Shadow federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who said ‘These attacks on the independence of our judiciary amount to an attack on our democracy. Our judges, no matter which government they were appointed by, must be free to do their job without political interference’,” Mr Kenyon said.
“Broad statements about being tough on terrorists obscures the challenge in identifying exactly who poses a terrorist threat.”
“While we all want to ensure that our community is safe, and that people who pose a threat are prevented from engaging in acts of mass violence, the judicial process is necessary in ensuring that only people who pose a genuine threat are detained and punished,” Mr Kenyon said. “Politicians should know better than to try to undermine that for cheap political advantage.”