In 2019, Queensland became the third state or territory in Australia to enact specific legislative protection of human rights.
The Human Rights Act 2019 (Qld) (the Act) has already begun to have a significant impact on the policy and legal landscape in Queensland.
The global pandemic has seen many human rights challenges, especially to those most disadvantaged and vulnerable. Safeguarding the right to health and the right to life was, of course, paramount.
However, it did not stop there. A pandemic also threatens other important rights. Protecting workers’ rights, promoting the safe release of vulnerable prisoners and assisting those at risk of homelessness were just some of the many other human rights challenges that our community faced.
As a legal profession, we must seek opportunities to promote awareness about human rights among people, co-operate in highlighting specific human rights issues and encourage groups most vulnerable to human rights abuses to seek assistance.
Queensland Law Society (QLS) proudly proclaims that we advocate for ‘good law, good lawyers and the public good’. This is more than a catchy motto; it is the foundation upon which our members and the excellent staff at QLS go about their work.
Last year, QLS released its draft policy position on human rights and welcomed feedback from its members. I thank the members for their interest in this important initiative and providing meaningful feedback.
Since then, the policy position on human rights has been finalised and is now approved by QLS Council.
The policy seeks to affirm our commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights and the rule of law in Queensland. It is designed to act as a framework for our policy activities in relation to human rights, especially in evaluating the substantive merit of legislation, policy and implementation.
The Law Council of Australia has long maintained a similar policy statement addressing human rights and the legal profession.
The ‘QLS Policy Statement on Human Rights’ is the Society’s pledge of commitment to human rights laws, including:
- domestic implementation of human rights
- advocacy in relation to human rights
- education and public awareness in relation to human rights.
A clear policy position is vital under a new scheme for scrutiny of legislation in Queensland. In particular, section 38 of the Act provides for scrutiny of legislation through a human rights lens. The section requires a statement of compatibility for each proposed Bill. It outlines how the Bill is or is not compatible with human rights. The statement is tabled along with other extrinsic material when the Bill is introduced in Parliament.
The QLS Human Rights and Public Law Committee was established in 2020. Among other activities, the committee considers carefully these human rights compatibility statements. Sometimes, this is a standalone submission.
Other times, it is working with other committees to provide that human rights framework for any contribution on behalf of QLS. Of note are the submissions in relation to prisoners in solitary confinement, raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility, the proposed Convention on the Rights of Older Persons, parole issues, sexual harassment in the legal profession, Indigenous voice proposals, the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce, and the inquiry into serious vilification and hate crime.
The work conducted by the committee contributes to the spirit of the Act in promoting a dialogue between the civil society sector and the government regarding human rights issues. It ensures that intellectual consideration is given to the human rights impacts of government policy, legislation and administration.
The QLS Policy Statement on Human Rights, the committee’s work in making submissions to Parliament, and mandatory Parliamentary consideration of compatibility with human rights all assist in building a culture in Queensland that respects, promotes, and actively engages with human rights.
Dan Rogers is a Principal and Legal Director of Robertson O’Gorman Solicitors. He is a QLS Accredited Specialist (criminal law), President of Caxton Legal Centre and Chair of the QLS Human Rights and Public Law Committee.