Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Shifting expectations - implications for the EPA and government agencies

The Government recently released the Ministerial Advisory Committee's Final Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Environment Protection Authority (EPA).

The inquiry says its 48 recommendations are aimed at making the 'EPA of the future the strong protector of public health and the environment that Victorians expect - and need - it to be.'  The far reaching recommendations would modernise EPA's governing legislation and clarify its objective to protect human health and the environment.  The recommendations seek to clarify the EPA's role and strengthen the EPA's scientific base, functions and tools, as well as its governance structure and funding.

The impact of the report stretches beyond the EPA. The EPA's functions are shared with other agencies within the broader environment protection regime.  The recommendations are aimed at improving coordination mechanisms across this regime, clarifying EPA's role in emergency management, and better managing environmental risks in the land use planning system.

There are issues and themes of relevance for all public authorities contained in the report.  This is particularly so in relation to what the community expects from government services, the importance of government agencies sharing data and mechanisms for whole-of-government approaches to strategy, planning, problem solving and the delivery of services.  

EPA's role


The Report recommends several changes to the way the EPA interacts with other departments and agencies, including:

  • Land use planning: The EPA should take on a more strategic role.  This would be achieved via statutory triggers requesting EPA advice and early involvement, for example in planning scheme amendment and rezoning processes.
  • Emergency management: EPA's role should focus on providing expert advice to control agencies and aiding with prevention.
  • Mining: EPA's role in mining regulation should be strengthened, akin to the role of WorkSafe.


Whole-of-government approach


The report recommends the introduction of a high level Environment Protection (Integration and Coordination) Act to improve coordination across government.  It suggests that effective institutional arrangements will require clearly defined objectives, appropriately allocated roles and responsibilities, and effective mechanisms to promote coordination.

Environmental protection is not the responsibility of just one agency.  The report identifies several situations in which the whole-of-government approach is necessary, including:

  • development of policy around climate change, which will significantly impact the EPA, as well as other agencies involved in emergency management;
  • development of policy around environmental justice and the relevant health and wellbeing concerns, through the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning; and
  • a closer working relationship with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Chief Health Officer in relation to protecting human health.

This strategic and coordinated approach to problem solving and the delivery of government services was identified as something the community expected of the EPA, and of government generally.

Data sharing


Data sharing is an important issue closely tied to the need for a coordinated whole-of-government approach to environment protection more broadly.  An evidence base for decision making requires consistent and robust data, as well as having all parties 'at the table'.  There are data sharing initiatives already underway. However, the report recommends that the EPA and other agencies work toward improved systems for State-wide environmental monitoring, a spatial data system and reporting of health, environmental and liveability outcomes.

The Report recommends that the EPA develop a digital data, technology and analytics strategy to guide decision making.  Such improvements could aid data sharing across government as well as with stakeholders.  

Community expectations


It is clear that the changing landscape of stakeholder and community expectations of government have had a significant impact on the report.  The report envisages that the changing context of Victoria's environment, population and economy will lead to changes in stakeholder and community expectations of their environment, their local areas and the delivery of government services in the future.

The Government's response to the report is expected later in 2016.  For the Government's initial response please see here.  There may be significant changes underway for the EPA and the broader environment protection regime.  In the meantime, the report is a useful resource for all government agencies.

For further information on the outcomes of the Independent Inquiry into the EPA and its implications, please contact:

Natasha Maugueret
Managing Principal Solicitor
8684 0402
natasha.maugueret@vgso.vic.gov.au

Mark Egan
Acting Managing Principal Solicitor
8684 0489
mark.egan@vgso.vic.gov.au

Annette Jones
Principal Solicitor
03 8684 0431
annette.jones@vgso.vic.gov.au

Thursday, 16 June 2016

When can you leave the past behind you?

In recent weeks, attention has been drawn to a federal election candidate in Western Australia who did not declare two spent convictions to the political party that had endorsed him as its election candidate.  The candidate has now been disendorsed by the political party and lost the opportunity to run for a seat in the Federal Parliament.
Aside from heightened scrutiny of candidates at election time, this situation raises a simple question, that does not always have a clear answer: what is a 'spent' conviction?  And in what circumstances does a person need to disclose such information to a government agency, employer or a non-government organisation?

The short answer is (in part) it will generally depend on the nature of the offence, when and where the offence was committed, and to what organisation or who you are providing the information.

What may surprise is that there is no spent conviction legislation in Victoria or formal rules that govern the disclosure of criminal history information.  However, Part VIIC of the Crimes Act 1914 (Cth) sets out the Commonwealth Spent Conviction Scheme.  All other jurisdictions in Australia have spent conviction schemes.

Victoria

A person's history of any Victorian criminal convictions are held by and accessed through Victoria Police.

While Victoria has recently passed legislation which provides for the expungement of certain historical homosexual offences, it does not have a general statutory regime dealing with spent convictions.

However, Victoria Police has an Information Release Policy that it applies to requests for an individual's criminal conviction history.

The Information Release Policy states that, save for certain exceptions, no details of a prior offence will be disclosed if 10 years has passed since an adult was last found guilty of an offence.  A five year waiting period applies for persons under 18 years of age.  Therefore, details of a person's prior convictions will generally not be disclosed by Victoria Police in a criminal history check once the relevant waiting period has lapsed, and in the absence of further offending.  However, an individual's criminal history remains in the records of Victoria Police.  As such, despite the Information Release Policy, Victoria Police may exercise its discretion and disclose criminal history information depending on the purpose for which the information is sought and to whom it will be disclosed (e.g. where the information is required for employment with children, the elderly or disabled persons).

Commonwealth

While Victoria does not have spent conviction legislation, Victoria Police’s Information Release Policy operates, in practice, in a similar way to the Commonwealth’s Spent Conviction Scheme in Part VIIC of the Crimes Act 1914.

Section 85ZM of the Crimes Act 1914 provides that a person's conviction for an offence will be spent if:
(a)  the person has been granted a pardon for a reason other than the person was wrongly convicted of the offence; or
(b)  the person was not sentenced to imprisonment for the offence, or was not sentenced to imprisonment for the offence for more than 30 months, and the waiting period for the offence has ended .

The scope of a person's rights and obligations under the scheme varies depending on:

  • whether the conviction is for a Commonwealth, state, territory or foreign offence
  • who or what type of authority or organisation knows or is being told about a spent conviction (ie a government authority or a non-government organisation)
  • where the person being told is located.
Generally, the Commonwealth scheme permits a person to not disclose a spent conviction:

  • to any person located in a state or territory of Australia a spent conviction for a Commonwealth offence;
  • to a Commonwealth authority a spent conviction for a state, territory offence or foreign offence.

The scheme also operates to allow a person to say under oath that they have not been charged with or convicted of an offence.

However, some categories and positions of employment are excluded from the Commonwealth scheme and require that a person must declare all convictions when applying for certain positions (eg a law enforcement agency has a right to information about a person's spent convictions for the purpose of making decisions in relation to prospective employees and contractors).

Other jurisdictions

In order to determine what a person’s rights are in relation to non-disclosure of a state or territory offence in Australian jurisdictions other than Victoria, the relevant spent conviction legislation will need to be consulted.

Take home points for individuals and government authorities

When determining whether they must disclose information about a prior conviction, individuals need to carefully consider where the offence was committed, the nature of the offence, how serious it was and what period of time has passed since it was committed.  While there can be a tension between a person disclosing their prior conviction history and their ability to put their past offending behind them and privacy, in some cases, disclosure of prior convictions will always be required, or at least expected, given the reason or purpose for which they are disclosing the information.  For individuals, ensure you read the fine print on what you are required or expected to disclose about your history of prior convictions and/or disciplinary offences to a government authority or non-government organisation.

Government authorities should ensure their application and consent forms clearly advise members of the public why and when they are required to disclose their prior conviction history, including what if any spent conviction scheme applies (including relevant exceptions) and how the information will be used.  Government authorities should also ensure they comply with privacy and data protection legislation when collecting information about a person's prior convictions.  This includes having privacy policies on how such information may be collected, used and disclosed.

Further information

- Victoria Police, National Police Certificates-Information Release Policy (2016)
- Part VIIC, Division 6 of the Crimes Act 1914 and Regulations 7A and 8 and Schedule 3 of the Crimes Regulations 1990
Sentencing Amendment (Historical Homosexual Convictions Expungement) Act 2014

Joanne Kummrow
Special Counsel
03 8684 0462

Michael Williams
Solicitor
03 8684 0471

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The Victorian Government Land Transactions Policy and Guidelines

The Victorian Government has recently released its new Land Transactions Policy and Guidelines (Policy and Guidelines).

The Policy sets out what is required of Victorian Government agencies when they buy, sell or lease land. It also sets out what is required when agencies provide compensation under the Land Acquisition and Compensation Act 1986 and Part 5 of the Planning and Environment Act 1987.

The Guidelines provide information and guidance to assist agencies to comply with the Policy's requirements.

The Policy's requirements apply to:

  • Victorian Government departments;
  • public statutory authorities;
  • legal entities established under State legislation for a purpose of the State (including those independent of government control);
  • companies in which the State has an interest; and
  • organisations, other than councils, which require statutory authorisation and/or ministerial approval, especially where public funds are involved in a land transaction.

Background


The Policy and Guidelines replace the Victorian Government's Policy and Instructions for the purchase, compulsory acquisition and sale of land (Instructions), which were adopted by then-Minister for Planning, the Hon John Thwaites MP, in August 2000.

The Instructions were intended to ensure that Victorian Government agencies adopt 'a consistent best-practice approach to their property transactions.'

Introduction to the Policy


The core elements of the Policy are consistent with the old Instructions. Agencies generally must not sell any land at a price less than its current market value, or buy any land at a price greater than its current market value. For this purpose, agencies must obtain valuations from the Victorian Valuer-General (VGV). Agencies also require the approval of the Victorian Government Land Monitor (VGLM) for any transaction (or group of related transactions) where the value of that transaction is $750,000 or more. There are a range of procedural requirements for the sale of land. Agencies generally may only sell land through a public process, and must provide clear information to prospective purchasers as to potential uses to which the land may be put.

Key differences from the old Instructions


The Policy and Guidelines introduce some important changes, and provide greater clarity or renewed emphasis about particular matters.

First, the Policy now regulates leases. Agencies may only grant or acquire leases or other interests in land at market rental value or better, as determined by the VGV. An agency also must not grant a lease of land which contains an option to purchase, unless the lease is granted to another government agency. However, the Guidelines exempt significant categories of leases (at section 10.2). The Policy also does not apply to licences.

Secondly, the Policy places clearer assurance obligations on agencies to ensure that all transactions are conducted to achieve accountability and transparency. In relation to accountability, the Guidelines state that an agency must ensure that:

  • it has the legislative power to undertake the land transaction;
  • it has obtained all necessary approvals to proceed with the transaction;
  • appropriate delegation is in place where it is proposed an authorised officer of the agency approve and execute the transaction; and
  • roles, responsibilities, authority and accountability of agency officers involved in the transaction are clearly articulated and well understood.

In relation to transparency, land transactions must be supported by processes that provide evidence of transparency of actions, equity in dealings, confidentiality, probity assurance and management of conflicts of interest.

Third, the Policy and Guidelines provide more detailed guidance on the requirement for agencies to conduct an appropriate level of due diligence. Prior to the disposal, acquisition or lease of land, agencies must conduct an appropriate level of due diligence to ensure they are fully informed of the status and attributes of the land. The depth of due diligence required will vary from transaction to transaction, but the Guidelines cover the following areas:

  • legal (specifically, ownership of and authority to deal with the land, and any encumbrances on the land);
  • public land values (in respect of Crown land);
  • survey;
  • planning;
  • contamination and pollution;
  • cultural heritage; and
  • Native Title and Traditional Owner Rights.

The Guidelines provide a helpful due diligence checklist in Appendix 1, to assist agencies in becoming fully informed as to the status and attributes of the relevant land. Appendix 2 contains a VGLM checklist, to assist agencies in deciding when to seek approval or assistance from the VGLM.

Fourth, the Policy sets out clearly the circumstances in which it does not apply to particular transactions. The Policy provides a list of exempted transactions in section 2(d).

A full copy of the Policy is available on the website of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning at http://www.dtpli.vic.gov.au/property-and-land-titles/valuation/government-valuations/government-land-monitor. We understand that the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and the VGV will be promoting the Policy and Guidelines in coming months.

In the mean time, if you would like further advice on the new Policy and Guidelines, please contact:

Anthony Leggiero
Managing Principal Solicitor
Property Team
9947 1430
anthony.leggiero@vgso.vic.gov.au

Mark Egan
Acting Managing Principal Solicitor
Land Acquisition, Planning and Environment Team
8684 0489
mark.egan@vgso.vic.gov.au

Margaret Marotti
Managing Principal Solicitor
Property Team
9947 1410
margaret.marotti@vgso.vic.gov.au

Elizabeth Wortley
Senior Solicitor
Property Team
9947 1433
elizabeth.wortley@vgso.vic.gov.au