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For new state Attorney-General Brad Hazzard, the renaming of the Department of Attorney-General and Justice is a hollow exercise that does nothing to diminish his position or agenda.

In April, newly-appointed New South Wales Premier Mike Baird decided to shake up the Department of Attorney-General and Justice, rolling Attorney-General Greg Smith and rebranding to the Department of Police and Justice. The change, according to Shadow Attorney-General Paul Lynch in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald in the same month, would, in effect, mean newly-appointed Attorney-General Brad Hazzard would be “subservient” to the Minister for Police. Such a move, said Lynch, was indicative of the government’s preference for administrative convenience and cost savings over the rule of law. A wave of concern washed through the legal profession.

Hazzard, however, is having none of it – and the solicitor and former Minister for Planning and Infrastructure is quick to dispel any notions of subservience, demotion or otherwise.

“The administrative changes were misinterpreted by the legal profession to see that I, as the first legal officer, would somehow be subjugated to the Police Minister,” he says.

“Absolutely not. I am not going to let that happen. And no-one need fear that will ever happen while I’m on watch.”

According to Hazzard, the name change is just that: a name change that will not diminish the influence or status of the Attorney-General – or the legal profession – in the slightest.

It’s early days for Hazzard, 62, but already he has some significant items on his agenda. The first, he says, is ensuring that the judiciary remains strong and independent, which he hopes will go some way to restoring faith in the legal system.

According to Hazzard, there are sectors of the community that believe the legal system doesn’t always address community needs. Part of the reason for this, he says, is the legal profession’s inability to effectively communicate what it is doing and why it is doing it.

“There needs to be a lot more recognition of the need to communicate in simple language about why we do things,” he says.

“The challenge for lawyers is to move away from the jargon that is necessary in our day-to-day activities and realise that it also needs to be translated into a simpler form of words that will help the community understand and appreciate why we do things.”

Speaking plainly, however, isn’t always a good idea – especially if you’re the Attorney-General. Hazzard’s predecessor, Greg Smith, was tarred with a “soft-on-crime” brush, partly due to his views on the ineffectiveness of mandatory sentencing. He expressed his concerns in the face of a government using mandatory sentencing as the cornerstone of new anti-alcohol-fuelled violence laws. Premier Baird promptly despatched Smith after Barry O’Farrell quit.

For Hazzard, though, the priority is to balance legal principles with community expectations.

“I don’t have any preconceptions about labels. Greg Smith was an excellent Attorney-General. He is an excellent lawyer,” he says. “The challenge for me, at this particular time, is to make sure there is a balance [between] some of these issues.”

In relation to mandatory sentencing, Hazzard says: “There should be discretion for judges to deal with an offender in the context they find them, applying the appropriate legal principles. But, from time to time, the government has to take measures which send a strong message to change cultures. At the moment, sadly, in New South Wales we have a culture that’s been very much around excessive use of alcohol and drugs. What the government decided to do was send a clear message.

It has already had some clear results across the [Sydney] CBD area where these provisions are in, and we will look at those as we progress.”

Hazzard says the legal profession has to understand that the government must do what is in the best interests of the community.

Who is Brad Hazzard?

  • Began his career in 1974 as a science teacher at North Sydney Boys High School
  • Studied law at UNSW and was admitted as a solicitor in 1977
  • In 1984 he was awarded a Master of Laws from Sydney University
  • Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s he practised as a solicitor and arbitrator on Sydney’s northern beaches
  • He entered Parliament in 1991 as the State Member for Wakehurst
  • In the Greiner and Fahey Liberal Governments he was chairman of the road safety committee StaySafe. In Opposition, he served continuously on the front bench under five Opposition leaders and in 17 different portfolios
  • Before being appointed Attorney-General and Minister for Justice in April 2014, he was the Minister for Planning and Infrastructure – a position he took up in April 2011

“Sometimes, that may or may not be exactly in accordance with legal principle,” he says, “but hopefully it will be in the majority of cases.”

Hazzard also has a plea for his fellow Attorneys-General: get on board with national profession reform. His first reading in Parliament was in relation to the Legal Profession Uniform Law Application Bill 2014, which, Hazzard says, “takes us a few steps closer towards common sense”.

So far just New South Wales and Victoria are backing the Bill, which aims to streamline the profession and remove much of the bureaucracy that Hazzard says hinders practitioners.

“Whether you’re a small suburban practice or a large city practice, the red tape and bureaucracy that surrounds us is a major challenge,” he explains. “At least we now have the kernel of a system that will make it a lot easier for legal practitioners to operate across at least Victoria and New South Wales.

“My message to Attorneys-General around the country is that this is a good start – come on board. It would make a lot more sense for law firms to have at least the bureaucracy and the red tape of operating across borders reviewed.”

While Hazzard is aware of the difficulties of achieving a borderless legal system, it is critical to both the health of the profession and the community, he says.

“I intend to listen to the profession and see what we can do to try and streamline [the system],” he says. “It’s a killer. As a partner in a law firm in Manly for many years, it certainly didn’t help my sanity that I had to deal with so much red tape at all levels.

“We need to look at it in a holistic way, not just for the benefit of the community but also for the profession to be able to do their job on behalf of the community.”

Photography: Laura Friezer