Meet the Commonwealth Parliament’s human rights legal adviser

7 December 2023
Associate Professor Jacqueline Mowbray is the legal adviser to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights
How do we ensure that the laws federal Parliament passes are compatible with human rights? In Australia, this responsibility falls on a parliamentary committee known as the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.

University of Sydney Associate Professor, Jacqueline Mowbray, has been the external legal adviser to that committee since 2018. It is now conducting a critical inquiry into Australia’s human rights framework and the possibility of introducing an Australian Human Rights Act.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights was established by an Act of Parliament and commenced operation in 2012. Its mandate is to review all draft Commonwealth legislation for compatibility with 7 international human rights treaties to which Australia is a party.

The Committee consists of ten Members of Parliament, from both the government and non-government parties/independents, and from both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

As Committee members are not usually experts in international human rights law, they are advised by a specialist legal adviser, currently Associate Professor Mowbray, and secretariat.

The Committee reviews all draft legislation and then reports to Parliament on the compatibility of that legislation with international human rights law. These reports, informed by Associate Professor Mowbray’s legal advice, have been influential in changing a number of pieces of legislation to better protect human rights.

Recent examples of where the Committee’s work has been influential include its reports on the use of restraints in aged care, which have been endorsed by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety and have led to several important legislative changes, and its inquiry into the ParentsNext program, which may have informed government plans to abolish the program from 2024.

Associate Professor Jacqueline Mowbray

The Committee also has the power to conduct inquiries on matters referred to it by the Attorney General. It is currently conducting a major inquiry into Australia’s human rights framework and the possibility of introducing a federal Human Rights Act.

The inquiry has received over 300 submissions and held public hearings in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.

“This inquiry is a critical one for the future of human rights in Australia, and it’s both tremendously exciting and a huge honour to be involved in it,” says Mowbray.

Australia is an outlier in the common law world, as it does not currently have a federal Human Rights Act.

Associate Professor Mowbray says the introduction of such an Act would have huge implications for the country.

“Many of the submissions to the inquiry note that if the government were to introduce a Human Rights Act, it would be a significant development in human rights protection in Australia.

“That’s why it’s really important that the Committee consider all the evidence and the legal implications,” says Mowbray.

The Committee is due to present its report on the inquiry to Parliament by 31 March 2024.

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