New Zealand Law Society - Role has whetted her appetitie for more law reform

Role has whetted her appetitie for more law reform

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Alison Douglass's long involvement in Law Society law reform initiatives has served to whet her interest in law reform and how as lawyers "we can influence change".

Another role she has, as chair of the Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology, has also stimulated her interest.

In fact these roles have whetted her appetite to the extent that she is currently writing up a major research project as the New Zealand Law Foundation 2014 International Research Fellow.

photo of Alison Douglass
Alison Douglass

Entitled Mental Capacity: Updating the Law and Practice, it looks at the question: "How is the current legal process working in law and practice and what changes are needed to the law governing mental capacity in New Zealand to ensure consistency with contemporary thinking and best practice standards?"

It is now some 27 years since the Protection of Personal and Property Right Act 1988 (PPPR Act) became law and it is in need of review. Ms Douglass's research examines New Zealand and international developments in mental capacity law over that time.

That included her travelling to England to study the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and a 2014 post-legislation House of Lords scrutiny report, which revealed significant problems with the Act's implementation.

Recent developments in England, including the first Supreme Court decisions under the Act, are "highly relevant to how New Zealand might update its mental capacity law and practice," she says.

Her research, which she aims to have written up by March next year, will include recommendations for change in New Zealand's law and practice.

Ms Douglass has now stepped down as convenor of the Health Law Committee, but will remain as a committee member.

Early involvement

Her first involvement with law reform came in the early 1990s, when she was a member of the Wellington Women Lawyers' Association. They wrote a submission on the new Health and Disability Commissioner's Code of Patient Rights.

She was then appointed to the Wellington Ethics Committee and became very involved in health ethics, and particularly the protection of patients' rights.

She joined what was then called the Medical and Biological Issues Committee when Don Mathieson QC was the convenor and after a number of years' service became the committee's convenor in 2006. Soon after taking up the reigns, Ms Douglass initiated changing the name of the committee to the Health Law Committee.

"Apart from being a mouthful, I didn't think the name really represented the full range of health and disability law that comes its way."

The committee, she says, "really draws on the strength of its wide range of members – lawyers who represent doctors, nurses, patients, DHBs, and academics such as Mark Henaghan, who inject enthusiasm into the discussion. It is a really good forum for bringing together diverse representation of the sector. It draws on the specialities of its members."

Ms Douglass quotes, as examples, the contributions made by Jennifer Moore, who had a specialist research interest in the area, on the Coroners Amendment Bill recently, and the upcoming review of the Medicines Act, which will draw on the expertise of Dr Fiona McCrimmon.

Interesting law

"Health law is interesting," she says, "because it encompasses a wide range of law and policy."

That means that an important area for the committee is looking at standards and guidelines which operate within the health sector.

One example of the Health Law Committee being involved in legislative change was in its submissions on the Human Tissue Act 2008, which reformed the 1964 Act. The legislation concerns the regulation of human tissue from dead bodies.

"I appeared before the Health Select Committee for the Law Society. Prior to the government bill, there was a petition to Parliament, along with a member's bill, calling for an opt-in organ donor register.

"Although the organ register didn't eventuate, there was intense debate around it. The Law Society submitted on both bills, culminating in appearing before the select committee."

That would be one highlight of her time as committee convenor, she says, "because we were there from the beginning to the end of the law reform process and we followed that legislation over a couple of years.

"For me, there are two very important areas in recent times where the Law Society has strongly maintained its independent voice.

Research ethics

"The first area was the changes to research ethics committees in 2012. The government watered down the rules and restructured ethics committees regarding whose role it is to protect participants in health and disability research.

"For me, the government was forgetting our roots and the standards we had for research gained since the Cartwright Inquiry." Headed by Dame Silvia Cartwright and held in 1987 and 1988, this was a Commission of Inquiry into the research on and treatment of women with cervical cancer at National Women's Hospital.

"The Health Law Committee collaborated with the Human Rights and Privacy Committee and pointed out that the changes to the ethics committees weren't compliant with international instruments for the protection of human participation in research," Ms Douglass says.

"The fallout from the changes is ongoing, and we're recommending that there be an overarching legal framework for ethics committees.

"The other issue is the review of the Health and Disability Commissioner's Code of Rights. The Law Society is on the record as making informed submissions around these very important areas of patients' rights," she says.

Good for lawyers

"Working on the law reform committees is good for lawyers. It makes you stand back from the focus of practice and look at the big picture.

"Some of the areas in health law involve ethical issues which by their nature may be controversial, with no one right answer. The Law Society has to make a submission that can potentially represent diverse views," Ms Douglass says.

As an example, Ms Douglass recalls her early days on the committee when Mr Mathieson was the convenor, and the committee debated euthanasia around the time of the Death with Dignity Bill.

"Watch this space. Fifteen years on and that's around the corner, isn't it?"

In her time as committee convenor "I think there have been a number of bills where the legislation has changed as a result of Law Society submissions. There have been disappointments too, where a large amount of work has been put in by the committee with only minor changes."

One of the big changes she has witnessed was that the Law Society's Law Reform Committee "really upped its game under the watch of Paul Rishworth QC and the Law Society Law Reform staff.

"Now there are some quite robust procedures because there is peer review of any submission that is prepared and that's good.

"It is important, too, that the committees collaborate, as perspectives vary depending on which lens of the law you are looking through.

"Generally, the law reform process and the rigour that the Law Society now applies means that the Law Society, I think, is influential and that has resulted in the betterment of New Zealand law."

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