Michael Kirby on The Laws of Australia: The Past, Present and Future

The Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG is the very proud and hands-on editor-in-chief of The Laws of Australia (TLA). And as the legal encyclopaedia service celebrates its 21st birthday, he shares his thoughts on The Laws of Australia’s role and the evolution of legal research in Australia.

For Kirby, the creation of a dedicated legal encyclopaedia in 1993 meant that lawyers and others in the legal profession would be able to see the links between the whole body of Australian law.

“The law isn’t bits and pieces,” he says. “It all fits together. You’ve got to see the law in context and have a ‘broad-vision knowledge’ and an overview.”

As far as Kirby is concerned, the original creators of The Laws of Australia set out to bring together the major concepts of the law, giving a broad picture, as well as the detail. In his opinion, TLA was established to give a setting to the law and to provide leads to the solutions to legal problems. However, the encyclopaedia goes much further than that.

“TLA takes you down into the engine room, giving you the statutes, the common law cases, constitutional provisions and any authorities which are essential to your understanding of the law.”

The times are a-changin’

For Kirby, the greatest change in legal research has come about through new digital technology. When he began his career, a typewriter was the norm. Then came the innovation of the electric typewriter, with a backspace correction function. That alone was highly advanced for its day.

As an articled clerk, Kirby undertook his legal research from books, which were often huge and behind the times.

“You couldn’t find the law. You had to go on a chancy search. The loose-leaf services were often out of date, and you could make terrible mistakes.”

So legal publishing embraced the advent of online information services, which have made the law more accessible and comprehensible than ever before, wherever and whenever it might be needed.

“Technology allows the user to click and get instantaneous access to the law. Technological add-ons are changing all the time. Through its ProView facility, TLA is taking full advantage of technological advancements to keep its service current.

Kirby has no reason to believe the pace of change will slow anytime soon.

“When I think about the old-fashioned way of legal practice when I first started, the changes are enormous. Not all of them are technological, but many are.”

He speaks enthusiastically about the greater role of women in the legal profession today, including in the judiciary, and wonders what effect those changes will have on the content of law over the years. Kirby also remembers the influence that English case law once had on the practice of law in Australia.

“We are now looking at law made by Australian parliament for Australian society, and at digital technology that makes access to parliamentary law so much easier.”

Australian society has changed in many ways since Kirby celebrated his 21st birthday. For him, the recognition of Aboriginals and of their legal rights, as well as the abolition of the White Australia policy, are hugely significant. So too is the acceptance of homosexuality and those in sexual minorities who were once subject to criminal laws and widespread hostility.

The future of The Laws of Australia

For the future, Kirby imagines longer time limits on lawyers in the courts, increased use of alternative dispute resolution and perhaps the implantation of microchips filled with legal information into the brains of lawyers.

“Don’t laugh. We would have scoffed in 1960 if we had been told then of what TLA can deliver now.

“But we haven’t yet invented a machine to deliver just outcomes. It is funding the will to do justice for all through the law that is the biggest challenge, and also the biggest privilege for lawyers,” he says.

And who knows where it might end? Because according to Kirby, in the coming years, TLA is going to be bigger and better than ever.

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