The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) is an organisation created by Federal legislation in 1996. The ALRC is an independent statutory body – in other words, it is funded by the Federal government but not controlled or influenced by parliament or political parties. The ALRC is overseen by a five-person team of commissioners, made up of judges and academics. The ALRC’s purpose is to study the law, particularly areas of law that might need alteration, refinement or improvement. It does this by conducting inquiries into specific areas of law and providing recommendations to Federal parliament. The ALRC is an advisory body and makes no changes to the law itself – but its recommendations carry significant weight and many are adopted and passed into law.
According to its website, the ALRC has the following aims:
- To simplify and modernise the law
- To improve access to justice
- To remove obsolete and unnecessary laws
- To eliminate defects in the law
- To suggest new or more effective methods for dispensing the law and administering justice
- To ensure the harmonisation of Commonwealth, State and Territory laws, where possible
- To monitor overseas legal systems to ensure Australia compares favourably with international best practice
As mentioned above, the ALRC organises and conducts inquiries into specific areas of law. These inquiries are called references because they are referred to the ALRC by the Federal attorney-general. Like other inquiries, they are instructed and guided by terms of reference. These terms of reference provide some quite specific guidelines about which laws and legal aspects. Some of the recent references carried out by the ALRC include:
- An inquiry into issues concerning violence against women and children.
- An inquiry into issues relating to secrecy and confidentiality, particularly with regard to Commonwealth information.
- An inquiry into Royal Commissions, their powers and effectiveness, and the need for alternative forms of inquiry.
Other ALRC references have reviewed topics as broad as genetic research, sedition laws, the rules of evidence, children in the legal process, aged care legislation, laws governing power of attorney, insolvency and bankruptcy law, spent convictions, contempt of court, privacy, diplomatic immunity, human tissue transplants, defamation and police complaints. Once the ALRC completes a reference it provides the attorney-general with a comprehensive report, which the attorney-general tables in the Federal parliament. This report will contain a summary of existing laws, how they are applied and how effective they are. It will also offer a number of recommendations about changes to the law. Again, these are only recommendations and the government is not obliged to initiate them, however, at least some will ultimately be incorporated into law.
Because the ALRC is a Commonwealth body, it is mainly concerned with Commonwealth or Federal law. Nevertheless, its references sometimes investigate areas where there is a crossover or relationship between Federal and State laws. ALRC reports may even suggest changes and improvements to State laws, though relevant States are under no obligation to accept or act on these recommendations.