Criminal Law Conference 2017

Friday 8 September 2017, Law Society House

President’s opening address


Acknowledgment of Country

In keeping with our reconciliation commitment it is culturally appropriate and important to acknowledge the First Nations people as the original inhabitants of the land on which this ceremony is taking place here in Meanjin, and recognise the remarkable country north and south of the winding Brisbane River, home of the Turrbul and Jagera nations. Following cultural protocol, we pay our deep respects to all Elders past and present as well as our emerging leaders of tomorrow, and thank them for their wisdom and guidance.

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”

This is one of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes; you can get it on t-shirts, coffee mugs and greeting cards, and the chances are if you have been a lawyer for more than five minutes you will have received something with this quote on it.

Whilst most people consider it a harmless joke, there are sections of society who share this sentiment; indeed, of late some journalists-often those who, shall we say, put the ‘limited’ in ‘news limited’-seem to take it fairly seriously, and it is sad to say that the people in this room are more often than not the target of this ire. In a click-bait world where more value is placed on ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ than on responsible and accurate journalism, you who act for people accused of horrific acts are often the target of the media; I say accused, because these days that is all a reporter needs-an accusation; and the more heinous the accusation, the more likely the media is to move from accused to guilty, long before any trial.

It might escape their notice for years that, apparently, half our politicians aren’t actually citizens of our country-but enter a plea of ‘not guilty’ for a bikie and you are front page news. Unfortunately standing up for the defenceless and the downtrodden isn’t seen by our media as being of any worth.

It is, however, seen by your Society and your peers as of great worth, one of the most important examples of discharging your duty to the court and the administration of justice, and we thank you for it. The practice of criminal law is both selfless and challenging, and you can hold your heads high for taking on one of the nobler areas of our profession.

Shakespeare’s quote is not an attack and is given, in fact, as a recipe for chaos-and as usual the Bard was right. The first thing most despots do is jail lawyers because of our pesky habit of speaking up in favour of the rule of law, something not high on the list of most dictators. Indeed, criminal lawyers are often the first to speak out against injustice, usually because it is their clients who are suffering it.

Sometimes that advocacy is done in court-it was after all Hans Litten, a Criminal Defence Lawyer, who famously put Adolf Hitler in the witness box in 1930s Berlin, a fairly gutsy move-and sometimes it is through media statements or via the Society. That has been particularly effective of late, with the Society-through the efforts of its Criminal Law Committee, Advocacy staff and council members such as Immediate Past President Bill Potts-enjoying great success. I have a great appreciation of the advocacy workload that falls on the criminal law arm of our profession, having addressed parliamentary inquiries and working groups, met privately with politicians on important issues and spoken out on high-profile cases to ensure public understanding and confidence in our courts and solicitors.

You have been given a more complete list of the Society’s advocacy efforts in relation to criminal law issues, but some highlights include

  • State Penalties Enforcement Amendment Bill was passed in May after QLS provided their support of proposals introducing payment plans and work and development orders.
  • QLS suggested amendments to the Criminal Law Amendment Bill to remove the non-violent homosexual advance defence. The Bill was passed with our amendments in March.
  • QLS suggested amendments to the Criminal Law Amendment Bill to remove the non-violent homosexual advance defence. The Bill was passed with our amendments in March.
  • the State Budget commitment to reintroduce drug courts in Queensland. This decision will go a long way to targeting the problem of addiction and reduce spiralling crime.
  • In the sphere of specialist courts, we were also pleased to see the government’s commitment to specialist domestic violence courts in June.
  • The announcement that the Southport specialist domestic violence court would be funded permanently and that two new specialist courts would be rolled out in Townsville and Beenleigh.
  • The Southport specialist court trial has proved a great success, with the Gold Coast being the sixth largest city in Australia, and desperately requiring more court resources for its burgeoning population.

Unfortunately this is work that never ends; we are seeing a rise of legislation which plays fast and loose with the rule of law, and people’s rights; in short, ‘reversal of onus’ is the new black. Recent legislation proposed by the government around building  products and industrial manslaughter have definitely taken ‘guilty until proven innocent’ to heart, as well as removed the privilege against self-incrimination and granted powers to government officials to enter building sites and remove evidence, all without letting the builder know they are there.

Such legislation inevitably comes on the back of tragedies, and hard cases make bad law. The Society’s role as a defender of the rule of law will be sorely tested by this wave of populism in politics and legislation, but with your continuing support I am certain we can withstand it.

Famous scientist Richard Dawkins once said, “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.” The people in this room teach altruism and generosity every day, through the way you discharge your duties and your commitment to help those who would be lost without you. I wish I could tell you that one day the media will appreciate what you do-but I might just as hopefully wish for a flying unicorn that dispenses Domain Chandon from its horn.

Your society and your peers, however, do appreciate what you do, and we thank you for it; I hope you enjoy your day and please, hold your heads high-you’ve earned it.