On 11 August 2008 John Faulkner launched the Australian Law Reform Commission’s (ALRC) report into privacy laws in Australia. The report is tremendous in scope, the result of a 28-month inquiry and spanning some 74 chapters in length.

Privacy is a basic human right and one that is fundamental to a person’s autonomy and dignity. In Australia, however, a general right to privacy is not recognised either by statute or the courts. Instead, there is legislation at both a federal and state level which protects privacy in limited ways.

The major piece of legislation which regulates privacy at the federal level is the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) (Privacy Act). The Privacy Act initially covered only the public sector. However, in 2000, the coverage of the Privacy Act was expanded to include the private sector as well, with a few notable exceptions (for example, small business and political organisations). The Privacy Act, amongst other things, limits the circumstances in which personal information can be collected and controls the manner in which certain personal information collected about a person may be used and disclosed. In NSW, the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act 1998 (NSW) also applies.

The report contains a number of recommendations. Notably, the ALRC has recommended that political parties and small business no longer enjoy exemptions from the Privacy Act. Also, the ALRC has recommended that a statutory course of action against serious invasions of privacy be established. The latter recommendation represents an important step, as it would give a private remedy to an individual who has been subject to an invasion of privacy.

The Federal Government is intending to review all the recommendations contained in the ALRC’s report, with a view to introducing into Parliament comprehensive legislation within the next 12 to 18 months. It is important that we all keep a close eye on any potential reforms in this area to ensure that any proposed legal reform reflects community standards and addresses the pervasiveness of certain forms of modern technology.

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