Image: Hilary Charlesworth

Image: Hilary Charlesworth

Designing, evaluating and improving Australia’s first bill of rights

7th March 2018

Research impact case study

Relevant dates: 2003-2012


RegNet and other ANU researchers were at the heart of the development and implementation of a significant legislative innovation for Australia: the adoption of Australia’s first bill of rights - the ACT’s Human Rights Act 2004. This legislation has influenced the drafting of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities 2006 and has attracted international attention.


RegNet and other ANU researchers had over many years investigated the adequacy of Australia’s system for protecting human rights (e.g. Charlesworth, Writing in Rights (UNSW Press 2001)). They had noted its shortcomings and argued for greater implementation of international human rights standards in Australia. This led to an invitation from the ACT government to Prof Hilary Charlesworth in 2002 to chair a Consultative Committee and prepare a report on the introduction of an ACT bill of rights. Charlesworth chaired the community consultations in 2003-4 and was the lead author of the report Towards an ACT Human Rights Act (2003). This led to the introduction of the ACT Human Rights Act in 2004. This legislation drew on a range of international precedents, and also contained some innovative and unique provisions.

ANU researchers (Charlesworth, McKinnon, Thilagaratnam, Young, Zeffert), together with Andrew Byrnes, UNSW, then carried out two major research projects over the next six years. The first was on monitoring the operation of the legislation; and the second was the feasibility of amending the Human Rights Act to include economic, social and cultural rights. The projects were based at the ANU and the major part of the research was undertaken here. Both projects produced reports for government as well as academic outputs (books, articles and book chapters) and online material.

What was the impact?

The ANU-based research directly informed the development stage of an historic piece of legislation and then provided the basis for monitoring and improvement of the law. RegNet scholars have since been active in leading community discussion on the legislation. For example, the ANU co-hosted with the ACT Human Rights Commission a major conference on a ten-year review of the Human Rights Act, in 2014.

The legislation has been referred to as significant in a wide range of court cases: see (this website is now maintained by the ANU College of Law).

Research funding

Research for the ACT Consultative Committee’s report was funded by the ACT government (2002-2003). Research on evaluating the operation of the ACT Human Rights Act was funded by two successive ARC Linkage Grants (2005-9, and 2010-2012) (Chief Investigators were Hilary Charlesworth (ANU) and Andrew Byrnes (UNSW) and the industry partner was the ACT Department of Justice and Community Safety. For more information see The reports from the Linkage Grants provided the basis for subsequent legislative amendments to the Human Rights Act, most recently in 2017.


The immediate beneficiaries were the ACT government and community. The ACT legislation then significantly shaped Australia’s second bill of rights, The Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. It then provided a model for the National Human Rights Consultation’s report in 2009. ANU researchers have also advised comparable community consultations in Tasmania and WA (although to date these have not resulted in legislative change in those states).

In 2016, Charlesworth and other ANU researchers were asked to assist with a proposal by the Queensland government to consider a state bill of rights.

Research Outputs

Charlesworth, H (2006): “Who Wins Under a Bill of Rights?” University of Queensland Law Journal 25, pp 39-53.

Charlesworth, H; McKinnon, G (2006): “Australia’s First Bill of Rights: The Australian Capital Territory’s Human Rights Act”, Law & Policy Paper No.28 (Canberra: Centre for International and Public Law).

Charlesworth, H (2006): “A Bill of Rights: An End to our Solitude”, in Tim Wright (ed) Time for Change: Australia in the 21st Century (Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books), pp 217-236.

Charlesworth, H (2006): “Australia’s First Bill of Rights: The Australian Capital Territory’s Human Rights Act”, in Jeff Goldsworthy, Tom Campbell & Adrienne Stone (eds) Protecting Rights without a Bill of Rights: Institutional Performance and Reform in Australia (Dartmouth: Ashgate Publishing), pp 289-304.

Byrnes, Charlesworth, McKinnon (2010): Bills of Rights in Australia (UNSW Press).

Young (2012): Constituting Economic and Social Rights (Oxford University Press).

There have also been many RegNet contributions to the media (e.g. radio and newspapers) on this project.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet