New South Wales Attorney General Jeff Shaw QC has warned the UK government not to act with haste or be overly influenced by public opinion in reforming the criminal justice system.
Shaw, who is a Labour politician and his state's top law officer, was invited to the UK to address the annual Doughty Street chambers lecture, held in London last week.
He told the assembled barristers, including Bar Council chairman Robert Owen QC, that all those who followed Labour ideals should defend basic human rights even in the face of massive pressures from the media and pressure groups.
“A simplistic appeal to public opinion may often lead a Labour government astray,” said Shaw. “The people are seldom unequivocal, and even if there is some consensus, it may not be correct.”
Shaw said governments faced difficulties in explaining and defending sophisticated crime prevention strategies which would have a reasonable prospect of being effective.
“It is much easier to adopt a Pavlovian response involving increasing penalties and retribution,” said Shaw.
The New South Wales state government is viewed as particularly liberal by Australians.
It has refused to allow politicians to authorise phone tapping and it has set up an independent commission to monitor the performance of judges. However, New South Wales is also facing problems with constraints on legal aid budgets.
Shaw was adamant that the provision of adequate legal aid was fundamental to achieving justice.
He also warned that acting with haste could lead to reforms that were short lived and easily reversed.
Shaw, who attended part of the recent Labour conference in Brighton and met with senior members of the Bar, tempered his comments on UK colleagues' legal policy by saying they were offered in a fraternal and constructive way.