The Presumption of Guilt: Rule of Law Conference 2021

Are we witnessing the death of the presumption of innocence? And does this matter?

This is the subject of the conference hosted by the Rule of Law Education Centre, that examined recent challenges to this doctrine and the threat this poses to the Australian concept of a “fair go”.

In an era where public policy is frequently influenced by the latest frenzy on social media, there is growing evidence that a dangerous new doctrine is on the rise: the presumption of guilt.

This should concern everyone, regardless of political alignment. The presumption of innocence is a bulwark not just against over-mighty governments, but against those who would side-step the normal law and impugn people who have done nothing wrong.

This conference examined the consequences of allowing this doctrine to be eroded by confining it to the formal processes of criminal justice. The presumption of innocence is an idea that applies everywhere. It underpins the federal and state Constitutions, protects liberty and ensures everyone knows where they stand. It is worth fighting for.

The 2021 Presumption of Guilt Conference run by the Rule of Law Education Centre considers whether we are witnessing the death of the presumption of innocence in Australia and whether it matters. This is not a political event but the start of a discussion to consider the vital importance of the presumption of innocence to each one of you watching and to our Australian society.

Bret Walker AO SC

Mr Bret Walker SC has been described as “one of the greatest legal minds this country has ever produced” and is recognised as one of the nation’s top silks.  He has held many positions and notably in 2011 was appointed the Inaugural Independent National Security Legislative Monitor and in 2020 led the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess.  

Mr Walker has represented Barnaby Joyce, Kevin Rudd, George Pell and the Finks Motorcycle Club and will be representing James Cook University in the Peter Ridd Case -showing his independence of mind and independence of action. He does not represent any right or left views and started our discussion on the presumption of guilt. 

Ron Hoenig MP  

Ron Hoenig MP has been the State Member for Heffron in the New South Wales Parliament since 2012 and is part of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly and Manager of Opposition Business in the Legislative Assembly. He is a member of the Committee on the Independent Commission Against Corruption which reviews ICAC and ICAC’s Inspector’s performance and processes, as well as a Member of the Standing Committee on Parliamentary Privilege and Ethics. 

Prior to entering Parliament he was the Mayor of the City of Botany Bay, a position he held continuously for almost 31 years. On top of this, Mr Hoenig was a Public Defender for twenty-five years and was involved in the high-profile Brimble and Light inquests.  

Margaret Cunneen SC

Our president at the Rule of Law Education Centre,  Margaret Cunneen SC,  is a passionate supporter of the rule of law in Australia and for over four decades has fearlessly upheld the rights of victims and given counsel to those accused of wrongdoing.  

She began her career as a clerk in the Attorney General’s Office and became the NSW deputy senior crown prosecutor and Commissioner of the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into child sexual abuse in the Maitland-Newcastle area. In her time as a Crown Prosecutor she successfully prosecuted many well known cases including Robert Dolly Dunn, the K brothers, the so-called Butcher of Bega and Paul Peters who put the fake collar bomb around the neck of Sydney teenager Madeline Pulver. 

Ms Cunneen currently works as a barrister in private practice representing people charged with serious criminal offences and is actively engaged with in promoting the rule of law and presumption of innocence to students at universities and schools.  No one is better qualified than her to comment on the question of the presumption of innocence or the presumption of guilt. 

Malcolm Stewart  

In 2009 Malcolm Stewart together with Robin Speed established the Rule of Law Institute of Australia to uphold and promote the rule of law in Australia. For over ten years Malcolm has been the Senior Vice-President of the Institute and has given talks, written submissions and provided evidence at Federal Parliamentary Committees.  

Mr Stewart is the Managing Director at Speed and Stracey Lawyers and has extensive experience in Tax and Commercial disputes.  Speed and Stracey Lawyers (one of our Centre’s supporters) in appropriate cases will represent a party to Court proceedings involving a rule of law issue. Most proceedings are against a government or government agency that has exceeded its powers.

Mr Stewart successfully represented the Woollahra Council in proceedings against the NSW Government to force the merger of local councils across the state. He has also recently represented a party, against the Commonwealth, in the High Court of Australia regarding a contravention of the implied freedom of political communication under the Australian Constitution.

Chris Merritt

Chris Merritt is the Vice-President of the Rule of Law Education Centre and part of the Australian media. 

He is Legal Affairs Columnist for the Australian Newspaper and regular Legal Commentator on Sky News. In his weekly columns, Mr Merritt has analysed the legal impact of government decisions and court decision upon Australian society.  In particular, Mr Merritt has highlighted failings regarding corruption watchdogs such as ICAC and the immense reputational damage done by public hearings, issues with current defamation laws and the perils of a lucrative class action industry. Mr Merritt has also contributed to the Australian Law Reform Commision on Public Confidence, Apprehended Bias, and the Modern Federal Judiciary and provided a submission and evidence to the NSW Parliament Committee on ICAC and the Reputational impact on an individual being adversely named in the ICAC’s investigations. 

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