Justice Legislation Miscellaneous Amendment Bill 2018

26 July 2018


Ms RYAN (Euroa) (10:15:03) — It is a pleasure to rise to speak today on the Justice Legislation Miscellaneous Amendment Bill 2018. This bill covers a wide range of areas. I think there are some 15 amendments to various acts being proposed, but there are two areas in particular that I wish to focus my contribution on today in the interests of time.

Firstly, there are amendments to the Coroners Act 2008 which propose changes that will enable families to apply for findings to be set aside if they appear to be against the weighted evidence in coronial investigations. Quite central to these changes is the case of Phoebe Handsjuk, although I do acknowledge there are a number of families who find themselves in a position where they are querying coronial findings. Back in November 2016 I did ask the Attorney-General to examine options to broaden appeal rights under the Coroners Act in order to give families more of an opportunity to question some of the outcomes in cases where I think the public and families have certainly had grave misgivings about particular cases. Phoebe's case was central to the request that I made at that time and to the legislation that is before us today.

Obviously Richard Baker and Michael Bachelard did an extensive investigation, as did Robin Bowles, who wrote extensively about Phoebe's death back in 2010. That I think gained a lot more public attention a couple of years ago when the Age did a podcast about her death and raised some really key questions in that case in that perhaps if decisions were made on the weight of evidence, then the family would have been able to appeal the coroner's findings.

I am sure many people in this place are aware, or I hope they are aware, of the circumstances around Phoebe Handsjuk's death in 2010. She fell down a garbage shoot from 12 floors up and her right foot was severed when she went through the garbage compactor. The evidence of the case would indicate that it was not actually the fall that killed her but quite possibly the severing of her foot. From the outset her family believed that there were far more questions than answers in that case, and they were somewhat stunned when the coroner decided to make a closed finding in the case rather than an open finding.

Her grandfather Lorne Campbell, who is a retired police detective, conducted a series of his own tests around the case, where he actually reconstructed the chute that she fell down. He had several of her friends of a similar weight and size try to insert themselves down that chute and found that it was a very, very difficult thing to do. The coroner did ultimately rule that her death was one, effectively, of misadventure, whereby she was affected by alcohol and Stilnox at the time. As I said, that did go against the recommendation of the counsel assisting in that case. My personal belief is that the coroner was wrong to make that finding at that time, and I think that the broader Victorian community, having reviewed some of the details of that case, probably would feel similarly about it.

I think this legislation is a step in the right direction. I am concerned that it does not go far enough, and indeed Phoebe's grandfather has come out subsequently and expressed his concern that it will not actually enable the Handsjuk family to appeal the findings in that case. But it is a step in the right direction, and I do commend the Attorney-General for being willing to review the circumstances of the Coroners Act 2008 with a view to broadening appeal rights. Unfortunately for Phoebe's family, unless there is substantially new evidence to come forward they will not be able to appeal as is set out under this act. I would also like to commend the work of the shadow Attorney-General, the member for Hawthorn, who has said that if we are elected to government we will endeavour to review these appeal rights, which I hope does offer families like those of Phoebe's some hope that perhaps one day they will be able to have their cases re-examined.

This legislation also means that the period of time for appeals to be launched will be extended from 28 days to three months, and I think that is an important change, because as we know it is incredibly costly for people to appeal findings to the Supreme Court from the Coroners Court. The review that the Attorney-General did into the Coroners Act came back with 11 different findings, and whilst the government accepted most of them there were three that I think were possibly quite important that they did not accept. They were that the government should fund the establishment of a client advocacy office within the Coroners Court, particularly with a high expertise in grief counselling; that the government should fund a centralised coronial legal aid service through Victoria Legal Aid to provide legal advice to interested parties relating to the coronial process; and that the government should fund a restorative justice program to enable families to resolve outstanding issues and questions following the conclusion of a coronial investigation. So there are a number of recommendations that the government has not picked up out of the review, which is somewhat disappointing to me, but I do acknowledge that this bill is a step in the right direction in hopefully giving some of these families a fair hearing.

The other issue that I wish to reflect on today concerns the changes that are being made under this omnibus legislation around emergency workers. This issue obviously arose from a case recently where two women who had assaulted a paramedic did not face the consequences of their actions as a result of that because of extenuating circumstances, and that as we know provoked outrage within the Victorian community. The opposition came out quickly and strongly with changes that we believe needed to be made to those special reason exceptions, and again I think the government has not gone far enough. The plan we put on the table was much stronger.

I do wish to recount a firsthand perspective that I received from a paramedic in my electorate in the couple of days that followed that incident. She said:

As a workforce and I dare say as a community we are absolutely disgusted — we are angry — at the decision that was handed down in the County Court yesterday where two females found guilty of assaulting two of my colleagues had their jail terms overturned.

I am fully aware that when the mandatory jail terms were bought in, there were conditions of extenuating circumstances of which must be considered when handing down a mandatory sentence.

This is where my main concern lies. Typically (but by no means always), the patients that we attend that may be a risk to our health and safety generally have very similar stories to the two women today. My understanding was that the whole idea of mandatory sentencing was to let everyone know that we are not punching bags and that no matter your upbringing or life choices if you lay a hand on us you will go to jail. Since the mandatory sentencing and the change of focus at Ambulance Victoria where the number one priority above all else was our safety, we were starting to think that maybe our job would one day be safe. Of course our job is dynamic and we are placed in some pretty sticky situations but as a whole we thought we were heading in the right direction.

After yesterday all that hard work has now gone out the window.

That is the firsthand experience of someone who works on the job who deserves to be protected, and to that end I think the government would be well advised to consider the very strong plan that we have put forward.

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