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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1999 Week 13 Hansard (9 December) . . Page.. 4056 ..

MR HUMPHRIES (continuing):

A number of other useful related suggestions were made concerning this area of the discussion paper. It was suggested that if parties fail to settle when a reasonable offer was made they should be exposed to a risk of greater costs. It was also suggested that plaintiffs should be required to swear the truth of any correction in an amends. Both suggestions have been incorporated into the Bill.

Mr Speaker, the new Bill provides guidance to the courts concerning awards of damages in defamation. In the past, damages served principally to vindicate a plaintiff's reputation. However, damages for defamation have been the subject of consistent criticism. There is a perception that some awards have bordered on the obscene when contrasted with awards for personal injury. I think we all recall the case of a footballer in New South Wales who was awarded several hundred thousand dollars over the publication of his penis in a magazine when a similar award for the loss of a penis in workers compensation proceedings or the like would have accrued for the injured person a much smaller sum of money. Courts should ensure that there is an appropriate and rational relationship between the harm and the amount of damages awarded. In doing so, a court should also take into account the ordinary level of general damages component in personal injury awards in the ACT.

Mr Speaker, in framing the proposed changes it has also been necessary to make changes to both the form and the content of the 1901 and 1909 defamation Acts. I have to confess that the older laws have died on the operating table. From the point of view of us considering the changes, it has proved preferable simply to repeal these older laws and present the amendments within the framework of a new law. However, members should be aware that the new law includes a number of older provisions salvaged from the existing laws. I trust that this approach will not get us sidetracked into detailed debate about the older provisions. They will be considered as part of a second round of reform to the law.

Mr Speaker, while proceeding with the above changes, the Government is also considering a series of other options to improve access to justice in this area. In some jurisdictions, the problems noted above have been partially dealt with by courts establishing an expedited list. While keen to explore this approach, it might not be possible to adopt this approach within the size and costing constraints of the ACT.

I am also considering a new fast-track procedure that will provide a prompt and inexpensive remedy in less serious defamation cases. If necessary, new powers will be given to the courts enabling them to dispose of a claim summarily and to grant damages at a modest level. I shall bring proposals concerning these and other matters to the Assembly as part of the second round of reforms to the law.

Mr Speaker, the question should be asked: Where to from here? The Australian Press Council has offered to sponsor a forum to debate the proposals in this Bill. I have agreed to that. Such a forum would allow stakeholders to come together and debate the substance of the reforms as a precursor to further consideration of the Bill in the Assembly. I hope that the members of this place who are interested in this issue will consider involvement in this forum.

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