World-Class Researchers

Melbourne Law School researchers pursue a range of significant and important topics. Just how significant was confirmed earlier this year when the Law School was ranked "well above world standard" for its research.

Melbourne Law School scored the maximum possible in the Government's Excellence in Research for Australia Report which ranks the quality of research by Australian universities.

Melbourne Law School and the Australian National University were the only law schools to be rated at "well above world standard" by the Australian  Research  Council  (ARC), which  assessed  research  across disciplinary areas in all of Australia's higher educational institutions over a six-year period.

"It is a credit to our researchers that the Law School has performed so exceptionally," said Dean of Melbourne Law School, Professor Carolyn Evans.

"These results tell the story of a community of outstanding researchers who are producing important research of rich variety and exacting quality."

Topics currently being explored by researchers include the criminalisation of cartels, religious freedom, equality in the workplace, children's wellbeing and the family law system, poverty in indigenous  communities,  substance use in prisons, and the powers of the Coroner.

Associate Professors John Howe (PhD Law 2004) and Sean Cooney (LLB 1987) are investigating the effectiveness of the Australian Government's employment standards and their enforcer, the Fair Work Ombudsman.

"We're looking at how the Ombudsman investigates non- compliance, and how it then uses its various enforcement tools, including litigation," says Associate Professor Howe.

With the Fair Work Act 2009 only coming into full effect at the beginning of 2010, the study is timely.

The Act has made significant changes to minimum employment standards, with over 4,000 industry level awards replaced by 130 modern awards.

"There are transitional arrangements in place while the changes are phased in over the next five years," says Associate Professor Howe.

"But we're finding that there  is a lot of confusion out there."

"Lack of awareness or difficulty with the standard is now going to be a major factor in compliance, and we will be looking at that closely."

The researchers are working on this ARC-funded project with the Fair Work Ombudsman. Their findings will provide the Australian Government with advice and feedback on the Ombudsman's approach to enforcement and the impact of the new standards on employer compliance.

How the world tackles deforestation, a major contributor to climate change, is the subject of a three-year ARC- funded study by Melbourne Law School  academics, Associate  Professor Maureen Tehan (LLM 1995), Professor Lee Godden, Dr Margaret Young (LLB(Hons) 1998) and Dr Kirsty Gover.

The project will look at the impact of climate change law and mitigation on indigenous peoples and local forest communities in India, Malaysia and Indonesia.

"Attempts to halt deforestation come from a range of international regimes, including United Nations funding and market mechanisms, the trade regime, environmental treaties  and aid initiatives," says Dr Young.

"Human rights and indigenous arrangements are impacted. Yet  how these legal regimes fit together remains uncertain for everyone involved. Scholarship is needed to address this uncertainty with the end goal – climate change mitigation – in mind."

This innovative study brings together senior academics in the field with up-and-coming researchers to look  at the complex interplay between the different bodies of law: domestic law, tribal law and customs, and the overarching international law.

The project examines the UN Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) which will provide financial incentives to avoid deforestation for communities  in  sensitive  ecosystems.

"We're interested in whether  there's an opportunity for communities who actually live in, or near, those forests to gain some benefit from the fact that they are involved in the conservation  of  those  ecosystems," says Dr Gover.

"Conservation work is often done by local residents, so it's a way to increase the value that is given to traditional knowledge."

The legal and policy principles developed over the three-year study will contribute to the debate as the REDD projects are designed. The study will be particularly relevant for Australia which is one of the countries that will be donating money to the REDD scheme.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 5, May 2011.