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Bail law changes not good enough, legal groups say

Legal groups are cautiously optimistic about the Victorian government plans to strip back the state's tough bail laws, but say more needs to be done.

Under the proposed reforms, the contentious reverse-onus test for bail would not apply to low-level offenders and the unacceptable risk test refined so the potential for minor reoffending cannot be used to refuse it.

Bail laws were strengthened after James Gargasoulas drove into a busy Bourke Street Mall in January 2017, killing six people and injuring dozens more. He was out on bail at the time.

Previously, the reverse onus test was only used for the most serious offenders but was expanded to cover those caught repeatedly carrying out low-level crimes like shoplifting.

The changes have disproportionately impacted Aboriginal Victorians and women, and led to more unsentenced people being locked up.

In January, Coroner Simon McGregor found the death of Indigenous woman Veronica Nelson in custody in 2020 was preventable and called for an urgent review of the bail act.

The government intends to amend the legislation to mean bail decision-makers must consider when an applicant identifies as Aboriginal and introduce Aboriginal child-specific decision-making principles.

Human Rights Law Centre acting managing lawyer Amala Ramarathinam said now is the time to get bail laws right.

"The changes announced so far are the absolute bare minimum, and they fall far short of the reform needed to stop the harm these laws are causing," she said.

"Victoria has some of Australia's most dangerous and discriminatory bail laws that are needlessly removing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and women from their families and funnelling them into prisons to be warehoused on remand."

The Australian Lawyers Alliance welcomed the changes, but warned it shouldn't be weighed down by complex new tests.

"The details of this proposed reform legislation are very important given the complexity of the Victorian bail act which runs to a staggering 119 pages. In contrast Tasmania's bail law is only 24 pages," ALA spokesman Greg Barns SC said.

"A simplified process with the presumption in favour of bail is required. We urgently need to decrease the number of unsentenced people in prisons. "

The Yoorrook Justice Commission also cautiously welcomed the announcement to overhaul bail laws.

Chair of the Yoorrook Justice Commission, Professor Eleanor Bourke, said it was pleasing to see the government "finally respond" to the issue.