Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (5.52 p.m.)-At the outset, I would like to acknowledge Senator Ludwig’s good and sound motives in proposing this legislation, the Crimes Amendment (Victim Impact Statements) Bill 2006. Senator Ludwig is one of the serious and substantial figures on the other side of this chamber. I want to acknowledge the motives that have prompted this particular piece of legislation, and I join with Senator Ludwig and my colleagues in fully supporting the concept of victim impact statements.
The whole concept of a victim impact statement is one which was prompted by some of the most ghastly crimes that have ever occurred in Australia. Horrific murders such as those of Anita Cobby and Janine Balding helped to renew the focus on the impact of crime on Australians, not only on the direct victims but also on those around them, such as their families, who are victims in their own way and in their own right. The murders of Anita Cobby and Janine Balding, those tragedies, captured the public mind in a way that had not really happened since the disappearance of the Beaumont children and the disappearance of Eloise Worledge. These two particular murders were worse, in the public mind. They captured the public mind even more because, unlike the Beaumont children and Eloise Worledge, we knew the actual horror of what happened to those two women. It was, I think, the grace and dignity of people like the parents of Anita Cobby, Grace and Gary Lynch, that helped to highlight the need to consider the rights of victims of crime and the need to take a fuller account of them when sentencing.
Not surprisingly, it was these sorts of crimes against the person that initially prompted the concept of victim impact statements in the state and territory jurisdictions. South Australia, along with New South Wales, was the pioneer of victim impact statements. The South Australian Labor Attorney-General in the 1980s, Chris Sumner, introduced a pilot scheme introducing the concept of written statements being presented to the court about the injury or loss that had been suffered by the victim. That trial was seen as a great success and legislation was consequently drafted and enacted in 1988. I would like to make brief reference to a decision of the Victorian Supreme Court of Appeal in 1988 by Justice Charles, who noted:
It would be quite destructive of the purpose of these statements if their reception in evidence were surrounded and confined by the sorts of procedural rules applicable to the treatment of witness statements in commercial cases. The reception of victim impact statements must, it seems to me, be approached by sentencing judges with a degree of flexibility; subject, of course, to the overriding concern that, in justice to the offender, the judge must be alert to avoid placing reliance on inadmissible matter.
It is worth quoting Justice Charles because it is clear from his finding that sentencing judges do see great value in victim impact statements-that it is not only the victims themselves who see the worth in them but also the judges that preside over these cases. Most states have accordingly followed along the path of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. In fact, all states and territories, except for Queensland, now have legislative provisions or court rules which expressly govern the use of victim impact statements. Even the Queensland legislation provides that the prosecutor should inform the sentencing court of the details of any harm caused to a victim by the crime.
Clearly, victim impact statements are just one way of informing of the impact of an offence on a victim. Federal legislation at the moment does not make specific provision for victim impact statements, as has been made clear in this debate so far. However, the impact of a federal offence on a victim can be taken into account under federal sentencing laws or, indeed, under state and territory legislation. Specifically, the Commonwealth Crimes Act 1914 provides that the personal circumstances of the victim and any injury, loss or damage resulting from the offence must be taken into account when determining the sentence to be imposed on a federal offender. So it is not as though the present circumstance is one where the victim’s interests, plight or suffering is not taken into account at the federal level. It clearly does already happen.
The public have a quite reasonable expectation that under the rule of law, when it comes to the criminal justice system, there will be sentencing in accordance with established procedures and consistency in sentencing. It is fundamental to the confidence of the public in our system of justice that there is confidence in those things. Again, as has been made clear already in this debate, the administration of criminal law predominantly falls to the states and territories, which establish the courts in the states and territories. The Commonwealth can legislate in relation to a number of things, particularly things like money laundering, illicit drug trafficking, people trafficking, sexual servitude, transnational crime, cyber crime and major fraud. So there are things that clearly do fall under the Commonwealth’s jurisdiction.
I will not cover again the territory of the fact that there have been two significant reports into this area: the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review and the joint parliamentary committee’s inquiry. As has been expressed, the view of the government is that, when looking at victim impact statements, we need to take into account the overall context of sentencing and, when addressing other issues in this area, the government feels that it is better to consider these things together consistently.
While the motives of Senator Ludwig are applauded and appreciated, it is very much the view of the government that now is not the right time. We should take our time. We should make sure that we get it right. We should make sure that we take into account all relevant factors in relation to sentencing policy so that we ensure that we get this right. As I have said, it is not as though these matters are not taken into account under the current federal sentencing regime. There is provision for that to happen. It does happen. The field is not vacant in relation to this matter. We look forward to a time when we can in fact put legislation into this parliament that will address the concept of victim impact statements. (Time expired)