When it comes to wielding influence, Wayne Martin puts almost every other judge in Australia to shame. He’s handed down controversial verdicts (including granting a quadriplegic the right to die), made his court the most open in the land, and been an outspoken advocate for indigenous Australians and the mentally ill.
Greg Barns, barrister and president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, says Martin is probably the most progressive judge in the country.
“Wayne Martin has been terrific,” Barns told The Power Index. “He’s broken the mould of the court’s traditional conservatism. Because of that he’s influential.”
So influential that The Power Index understands Martin’s willingness to challenge the status quo has led to friction behind the scenes between him and the Liberal WA government, particularly WA Attorney General Christian Porter. Hostilities have, however, eased in recent months.
Barns says he has been particularly impressed by Martin’s decision to ban lawyers from wearing wigs (he’s the first judge in Australia to do so) and to allow cameras into the courtroom. Martin gave permission for Today Tonight to spend a week filming proceedings in the WA Magistrates Court in 2009; last year he allowed ABC documentary-makers to film a Supreme Court murder trial. He also provides media outlets with audio of his judges’ sentencing remarks and has answered live questions from talkback radio listeners.
“He’s quite a formidable character,” said WA Law Reform Commission chair Mary Anne Kenny. “He’s a reformer and a strong personality. He’s passionate about making the law more accessible to the general public.”
Whereas most judges recoil from weighing into public debate, Martin regularly speaks out on contentious issues. He has declared time-sheet forgery rife in the legal profession and called for law firms to reduce their dependence on “billable hours” — a practice he says builds distrust between lawyers and the general community. He has also made a radical proposal for judges to sit in with juries to help guide them through their deliberations.
His principle preoccupation is tackling the over-representation of indigenous Australians and the mentally ill in his state’s jails. Aborigines make up only 3.5% of the WA population but account for 40% of adult prisoners and 76% of juvenile detainees. Martin has called for Aboriginal community courts to be rolled out across the state and warned that detention for young indigenous offenders should only be used as “a last resort”.
He’s also argued that sending mentally ill offenders to jail for minor crimes is often inhumane, expensive and ineffective. He wants to see specialist mental health courts and laws enacted to protect those who are unable to enter a plea from serving inordinate time behind bars.