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In Conversation with Stephen Lawrence

Author of ‘An Opportunity for Progressive Law Reform’

Interview and article by Alice Stafford

Stephen Lawrence is the Deputy Mayor of the Dubbo region and a barrister specialising in public law. Prior to his current roles, Stephen worked with the Aboriginal Legal Service in Western NSW as well as on justice work in Afghanistan and the Solomon Islands. Stephen also features on monthly legal podcast The Wigs.

Stephen’s article, An Opportunity for Progressive Law Reform, is featured in the 2020 edition of the Evatt Journal.

How does your professional life align with the work of the Evatt Foundation?

I have always sought work that I find fulfilling. That has meant that a large part of my career has been dedicated to working on access to justice and human rights issues in a very practical sense. I’ve been involved in criminal defence work in the Solomon Islands, in Afghanistan, in Western New South Wales (NSW) and more broadly across Australia. I am also currently the Deputy Mayor of the Dubbo region where I am fighting for progressive policy outcomes at the local government level.

What are the key takeaways from your article?

We need to look for the positives in the negatives coming out of the pandemic. Technological improvements to the court system and the subsequent increase in access to justice marks a major positive. For example, I recently appeared in the Court of Appeal in relation to the Black Lives Matter protest from Dubbo. Without technological improvements in the way court proceedings can take place, that appeal may not have gone ahead.

The policy response to the pandemic has also shone light on very real human rights issues. I think the time is right for the progressive left to have a renewed push for a fundamental human rights framework in NSW and nationally.

In the article you focus on “renewing this push for national and state human rights charters as well as a digital bill of rights”. Why should individuals in Australian communities be aware of the need for human rights law reform?

In recent decades the legislative and policy activity that governments are undertaking in the western world has drastically impacted on fundamental human rights. This is an issue of social concern. While individuals can stand up for human rights, a government human rights framework will give citizens and social groups the most powerful weapon to use to advocate for the vindication of human rights.

What is the current human rights legislative framework? Are there workable alternatives to introducing a bill of rights?

In Australia, we have a statutory bill of rights in Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory. At the federal level, we have a committee system that ensures that – when bills are put through federal parliament – there is a committee process to examine the human rights implications. And we also have various other individual pieces of legislation that sometimes mandate requirements of human rights. For example, if evidence is improperly or unlawfully obtained, the court is mandated to consider whether a provision of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) has been breached in the way the evidence was obtained.

But ultimately, this is woefully inadequate. One real consequence of that is – on the jurisprudential level – Australia is increasingly falling out of step with comparable western states. Indeed, we are also out of step with a range of developing states because we are one of the few comparable countries that doesn’t have a bill of rights framework.

Do you have practical recommendations to advance the ‘progressive law reform agenda’ you advocate for in your article?

Real and progressive change of whatever nature only happens in Australia through the Labor Party. So, we need to win these fights inside the party. And the Labor Party actually has a fairly disappointing history on the question of a bill of rights. Certainly, there was a push under Kevin Rudd, but at a state level there is a pretty disappointing track record, particularly in NSW. So, we need to win these fights within the Labor Party and the Labor Party needs to win elections. Something that is proving pretty elusive at the moment.

Stephen’s full article can be found here.


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