The most significant changes to Australia's criminal appeal laws in a century have been passed in South Australia, setting a precedent for reform which could flow all the way to the High Court. South Australia has passed reforms to allow prisoners a second chance to appeal their convictions in the case of compelling new evidence. Until now, people convicted of an offence have had a single right of appeal, and once that appeal is exhausted they have no further legal options, even if new evidence emerges. The South Australian change potentially prevents miscarriages of justice that could see innocent people languishing in prison while the real culprits remain free. The prospect of being able to present fresh evidence to court after an initial, failed appeal is about to become a reality in South Australia.Attorney General John Rau is bringing down sweeping reforms. "There have been many cases in Australia and overseas over many years where it's been more than suggested that an injustice ultimately has been done to a particular individual because some new material has come to light and they, for various reasons, have been unable to have that heard." At present, the only way such matters can be dealt with is to petition the state Governor to seek the intervention of the Attorney, a process Mr Rau describes as opaque and reliant on the discretion of the politician. "That is obviously a completely non-transparent process and it is one that from my experience the convicted people concerned don't feel very comfortable with because it is not transparent. The idea we have here is it will all be done in open court, it will be dealt with completely openly so that everyone can have confidence the system is dealing with these probably fairly rare but still very important cases." Retired professor of law at the University of Adelaide, Dr Robert Moles, has been campaigning for this reform for years. He's published books on forensic evidence and miscarriages of justice, compared justice systems in Australia, Britain and Canada, and presented a massive submission to the parliamentary inquiry that preceded these reforms. Mr Moles says change has been a long time coming."The appeal rights in Australia were first introduced after the British Criminal Appeal Act in 1907 and so the Australian equivalents were introduced in the various states and territories around about 1910, 1912, 1913. So we've had 100 years of unamended appeal rights, and they've always been consistent between the various states and territories." Robert Moles believes the fact there's now inconsistency will prompt other states and territories to act to maintain the principle of equality before the law.
"All Australians should have the same right to a fair trial and they should have the same right to a fair appeal. So if South Australians have a new statutory right of appeal then it follows logically that all other Australians should have the same statutory right of appeal, and so we expect that the other states and territories will have a careful look at this and before very long they will all legislate to bring themselves back into conformity with each other, as they have been for the last 100 years." Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby has publicly backed the reforms, having previously expressed frustration at the High Court's inability to accept fresh evidence. Dr Moles says there are at least a dozen cases in South Australia alone waiting to be tested under the changes. It includes the case of Aboriginal man Derek Bromley, who was convicted of murder in 1984. He maintains he is innocent. Bromley completed his sentence in 2008, yet has not been released. Before he can be freed he must complete a re-socialisation course which requires him to apologise for his crime and say he's a changed man - but Bromley won't show remorse for something he says he didn't do.Robert Moles