Bail Amendment Bill 2023 – Second Reading Debate

Juliana ADDISON (Wendouree) (11:10): I rise to speak in support of the Bail Amendment Bill 2023, which makes changes to Victoria’s bail laws to ensure that those accused of minor offending are not subject to harsh bail tests, while at the same time ensuring strict bail tests remain for those who pose a risk to community safety.

In making this contribution I acknowledge the death of Veronica Nelson in custody at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, which was tragic and preventable. I want to acknowledge the distress and sorrow experienced by Veronica’s family, Aunty Donna Nelson, her partner Percy Lovett and all those who loved and knew her. I thank them for their advocacy for bail reform and preventing further deaths in custody, particularly of those on bail.

Our government fully recognises the need for action to ensure that our bail system addresses the over-representation of Aboriginal people in our justice system, and the reforms put forward in this bill seek to work towards this important goal. The reforms that we are discussing today come about thanks to the leadership of our Attorney-General, and I want to thank the Attorney-General for the work that she has done; Rebecca Andrews in the ministerial office; and all the advisers; as well as our public servants, who do so much work in the Department of Justice and Community Safety.

Importantly, the content of this bill has been informed by targeted consultations undertaken by DJCS with key stakeholders including but not limited to the courts, Victoria Police, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service – and I thank Nerita Waight, the CEO of VALS; the Federation of Community Legal Centres; Victoria Legal Aid; and the Aboriginal Justice Caucus.

The key reforms in the bill are the repeal of two offences against the Bail Act 1977, one being committing an indictable offence while on bail and the second one being contravening bail conduct conditions. There will be a refocus on reverse onus bail tests on serious offending. The bill will change the bail test for children accused, with a further narrowing of reverse onus bail tests and an update on the Aboriginal-specific bail considerations. It will relax restrictions on second bail applications and allow other reforms designed to reduce inappropriate remand for minor alleged offending.

The reforms proposed in this bill address many of the issues and findings raised in the coronial inquest into the passing of Veronica Nelson, the Yoorrook Justice Commission and the parliamentary inquiry into Victoria’s criminal justice system.

As chair of the Women’s Correctional Services Advisory Committee – WCSAC – which reports to the Minister for Corrections, I know what a difference the changes proposed will make to the lives of women in contact with the justice system. WCSAC was first established in 2003 to provide an external source of expert advice on the delivery of correctional services to women in custody and under community supervision. The committee comprises incredible women who are key stakeholders with diverse backgrounds who have considerable working knowledge and experience of the complexities and challenges faced by women in custody, and I thank them for the work they do – as well as the WCSAC secretariat.

Through my involvement with WCSAC over the last few years, I have learned more about the ongoing issues of women in the correctional services system through discussions with representatives from Corrections Victoria and those who work every day with women in our prisons. Women in prison are twice as likely to have mental illness. They are more likely to have an acquired brain injury, they are more likely to have minimal employment histories, they are more likely to have unstable housing, they are more likely to be primary caregivers of their children and they are more likely to have committed offences while under the influence of substances or to support their substance dependence.

I have had the opportunity to visit the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC) and Tarrengower and meet with women in custody, speaking with them and listening to them. Many women in custody have complex needs and have suffered significant trauma in their lives. I am well aware of the over-representation of Aboriginal women in custody in Victoria and the importance of improving health care and disability services in our prisons. I know the impact that Victorian bail laws have had on individuals and all aspects of their lives, including their children, their employment and their housing. I am confident that the changes being proposed in this bill will bring about better outcomes for women and their children.

I would like to recognise the work of the Minister for Corrections Mr Erdogan in the other place as well as the previous ministers for corrections, including the member for Niddrie, the member for Sydenham and the member for Carrum. I welcome that the Andrews Labor government is progressively implementing reforms that recognise that women in contact with the justice system often have complex and varied needs and experience high rates of victimisation and trauma.

A purpose-built centre opened in April 2022, replacing beds no longer fit for purpose and designed to help more women get involved with rehabilitation services. The centre is the first of its kind in Australia, designed in line with trauma-informed principles.

The 2023–24 budget has invested $18.35 million for supporting the corrections system to improve community safety. This funding includes, among other initiatives, support for women to maintain or develop strong family connections while in custody, including $1.1 million to continue family engagement services in women’s prisons, which provide family engagement workers, family engagement support and family therapy. We have also allocated over $40 million over five years for the women’s custodial health services initiative to deliver expanded primary health services through public health providers at DPFC and Tarrengower.

The bill before us primarily proposes amendments to the Bail Act 1977 in order to improve bail tests, update the required considerations for bail decision makers, repeal certain unnecessary bail-related offences and make several other improvements to Victoria’s current bail laws.

There are certain tests that must be satisfied when considering whether bail may be granted, with the severity of the alleged offences determining which tests are applicable. This bill proposes to improve these tests and their application in several ways.

One of the fundamental changes proposed is the concept of uplift, where a person on bail is then alleged to have committed another offence and thereby faces a much more onerous bail test than the normally applicable one for that offence alone. The consequence is that alleged low-level, non-violent repeat offenders end up on remand more often despite posing little risk to the community. To address this, the bill proposes that test uplift should no longer apply for non-schedule offences so that bail can be considered more appropriately for lower level allegations.

This bill seeks to make further sensible refinements to the unacceptable risk test, which is that lowest level test for bail. Under these changes, for low-level alleged offenders a risk of committing an offence while on bail would not be reason enough for remand unless there is a risk to the safety or welfare of another person.

Additionally, the majority of summary offences would be classified as remand-prohibited offences where bail cannot be refused unless an exception applies, although appropriate conditions may apply with the possibility of remand for non-compliance. Remand prohibition will not apply to certain serious summary offences as outlined in the new schedule 3 offence category.

In addition to directly addressing bail tests, this bill also amends the specific matters that must be considered by a bail decision maker, such as a magistrate or a police officer. Under section 3A of the current act, where a bail applicant is an Aboriginal person bail decision makers are required to consider cultural background and other relevant cultural issues or obligations in their decision.

I would just briefly like to mention that bail considerations specific to children are also expanded in light of the inherent vulnerabilities of young offenders for whom remand must only be a measure of last resort.

This is a very important bill that is progressing Victoria to be a fairer, safer state, and I commend it to the house.

You can take a look at more of my speeches to Parliament here.