Oaths and Affirmations Bill 2017 | Sue Pennicuik

Oaths and Affirmations Bill 2017

It is a pleasure to rise to speak on this bill that we have been anticipating for such a long time, because while it may seem like a very simple bill, it will affect many people's lives and in fact make the process of making statutory declarations, for example, much easier by making it easier for people to have access to persons who can witness them, particularly for those people who live in rural and regional areas.
Thursday, February 8, 2018 - 9:30am
Speaker:
Sue Pennicuik

Ms PENNICUIK (Southern Metropolitan)  — It is a pleasure to rise to speak on this bill that we have been anticipating for such a long time, because while it may seem like a very simple bill, it will affect many people's lives and in fact make the process of making statutory declarations, for example, much easier by making it easier for people to have access to persons who can witness them, particularly for those people who live in rural and regional areas.

The bill repeals most of part IV and all of part V of the Evidence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1958 in order to overhaul the legislation relating to oaths, affirmations, affidavits and statutory declarations. We support the bill because it provides for more accessible and simplified legal processes in relation to those instruments, which are extremely important mechanisms in the effective administration of the law and ensuring equality before the law.

Part 2 of the bill modernises how an oath or affirmation can be made if no other laws specify what is required or where, if a process is prescribed, there are gaps in the process. The bill provides that in the case of children or vulnerable witnesses — for example, those with cognitive impairments — being able to simply say 'I promise to tell the truth' can be used by children or persons with cognitive impairment when making an oath, and this will satisfy the requirements of the Evidence Act 2008 and the Oaths and Affirmations Bill 2017.

This reform is needed because during the consultation process the government heard that young children who are totally capable of giving sworn evidence were sometimes confused by and struggled with the words that are currently required under the Evidence Act, and this could affect their confidence and even their willingness to give evidence. So this is a good reform in terms of hearing evidence from children and also from people with cognitive impairment.

The bill also provides for an oath or affirmation to be made by more than one person at the same time. This means that if a group takes an oath or affirmation together, it is not necessary anymore for them to say the words of the oath or affirmation out loud. For example, they could listen to the oath or affirmation being read and then all reply together that they will abide by that oath or affirmation to tell the truth.

It provides also that a person may take an oath even if the person's religious or spiritual beliefs do not include the existence of a god and also confirms that it is not necessary to swear an oath on a religious text. This provides full respect of the different beliefs and cultures in the Victorian community.

Part 3 of the bill sets out in one place the standard requirements that will apply to all affidavits for use in Victoria. Courts and tribunals will be able to make rules that tailor affidavits to specific proceedings, and there will be no confusion about the basic requirements of an affidavit in Victoria. The bill maintains the existing prohibition on witnesses charging for the signing or administering of an oath or affirmation for an affidavit.

In regard to affidavits as well, if a person has low literacy or is visually or cognitively impaired, that person will still be able to make an affidavit and the authorised affidavit taker must certify that he or she read the affidavit to the deponent, ensuring that people with these sorts of disabilities will be accorded, as far as possible, equality before the law.

With regard to statutory declarations, part 4 of the bill will increase the list of persons who can witness a statutory declaration by adopting the commonwealth list of persons. In future, teachers, nurses, some staff of Australia Post and a wider range of public servants will now be able to witness statutory declarations. Expanding the range of people who can witness a stat dec means legal processes will be much more accessible to people living outside of metropolitan areas, especially those in remote communities.

The bill spells out the basic steps for making a stat dec based on the existing practice of honorary justices in Victoria. It will allow a stat dec form to be prescribed in regulations and that the words of the declaration must be said aloud before the witness; that will be standardised. Further, if a statutory declaration is made by a person who has low literacy or who is visually of cognitively impaired, then similar processes apply here as apply for affidavits, whereby the witness must certify on the face of the statutory declaration that the witness read the stat dec to the person with a disability.

As mentioned by Mr Rich-Phillips, making a false statutory declaration will carry a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment under a new offence created by the bill. That will now form part of the general offence of perjury under the Crimes Act 1958 because, as pointed out by Mr Rich-Phillips, it is a serious issue to make a false declaration; it can have wide ramifications.

Under part 5 the bill provides a statutory scheme for the certification of a copy of a document as a true copy of the original document. The integrity of the certification process is absolutely critical because false documents can be precursors to fraud and other criminal activity, and we know that in this day and age identity theft and the use of all sorts of false documents are growing problems. The bill lists the processes that will apply for certifying copies of documents as well as providing for general certification offences, including an offence to present a false copy of a document for certification, with again a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment.

That is what the bill does. It is a reasonably simple bill, but I think it will have wideranging positive effects in the community with regard to oaths, affirmations, affidavits and statutory declarations as they are widely used on a daily basis by people in the community for a wide range of reasons, and it is important that the integrity of this system is maintained and enhanced. So the Greens will be supporting the bill.