Hansard Search

12 March 1991 - Current

Page 665
12 March 2014
  Minister for Police and Emergency Services


Second reading

Mr WELLS (Minister for Police and Emergency Services) -- I move: That this bill be now read a second time. Speech as follows incorporated into Hansard in accordance with resolution of house: Witnesses are an essential part of our criminal justice system. If there is no witness, there can often be no prosecution. The Witness Protection Act 1991 establishes the Victorian witness protection program and allows the chief commissioner to protect witnesses and families who are at high risk of harm. Protecting a witness and their family can remove a barrier to that witness coming forward, assisting police and ultimately giving evidence in a criminal prosecution. This bill will improve the operation of the Victorian witness protection program. In 1991, Victoria enacted Australia's first Witness Protection Act. Since this time, all other Australian jurisdictions have followed Victoria's lead. Over time, the demands on the Victorian witness protection program have increased as police focus resources on investigating organised crime and outlaw motorcycle gang activity. This bill is the first step in implementing outstanding recommendations from OPI's 2005 review into Victoria's witness protection program and brings Victoria's act closer in line with the acts of other Australian jurisdictions. Protection tools available under the act include change of identity and relocation. Police cannot force these sorts of measures on witnesses. The witness needs to consent and cooperate. This is one of the reasons why the chief commissioner can only protect a witness under the act if they enter into an MOU detailing the protection measures and obligations of each party. The MOU also provides certainty and supports the integrity of the witness protection program. However, the assessment process prior to the chief commissioner entering into an MOU with a person may take some weeks or months. Victoria Police's specialist witness security unit must gather all the information required to conduct a full risk assessment and settle the details of the protection to be provided. This period of transition into the program may involve high risk to the witness and their family. The proposed bill will allow Victoria Police to provide urgent interim protection measures during this time ahead of formal entry into the witness protection program. The proposed bill will also improve the operation of Victoria's witness protection program and better align Victoria's act with interstate acts by: enabling the chief commissioner to authorise the use of temporary assumed identity documents; formalising in legislation the administrative steps and considerations for the chief commissioner's decisions to admit and terminate a person from the program; strengthening the information upon which witness protection decisions are made; streamlining the review mechanism under the act. Affected people will continue to have a right to an internal review and external Supreme Court judicial review of the decision. IBAC can still investigate decisions using their complaints powers; formalising the ability of the chief commissioner to suspend protection and assistance measures (for example, when someone goes into custody or overseas); making clear that witness protection is not a way to avoid obligations associated with an original identity (for example, civil debts, a criminal record, parole obligations or sex offender register requirements); introducing further measures to guard against the disclosure of identities of protected witnesses in court proceedings; and making other minor and technical amendments. Upholding the criminal law and maintaining civil order depends to a large extent on the preparedness of witnesses to assist police and ultimately give evidence in criminal trials. We need to encourage witnesses to cooperate with police and protect those who face risks in doing so. When enacted, in 1991, Victoria's Witness Protection Act led the way. While these reforms improve the existing framework, we need to ask is there anything more we can do? This is why, over the coming year, the Honourable Frank Vincent, AO, QC, will conduct a broad review into the Witness Protection Act. This review will examine outstanding recommendations of OPI's 2005 review of the Victorian police witness protection program. The review represents an opportunity for Victoria to lead the way again and ensure the laws support this important tool in the fight against organised crime into the future. I commend the bill to the house. Debate adjourned on motion of Ms KAIROUZ (Kororoit). Debate adjourned until Wednesday, 26 March.