Legal Beagle Introduction: law for writers

HeartsTalk is a publication of the fabulous Romance Writers of Australia. It is available to all members of RWA, and publishes articles on writing craft and all sorts of other things relevant to romance writers - and writers generally. It is an invaluable resource to aspiring, emerging and established writers.

I write a monthly column in HeartsTalk - Legal Beagle - which gives a snippet of information on many things romance writers might come up against in their writing. Here is Novembers post!

The law is something we all have to deal with in life—including our writing lives—whether we like it or not. And it’s not that you need to know a lot about the law—unless you write courtroom dramas—you just need to know what you don’t know, and what you have to research to get things (more or less) right. Otherwise you run the risk that a publisher will roll their eyes, an editor will tear their hair out, and a reader will stop reading. And this applies to everyone. So, for example, historical romance writers need to know about the laws of sexual assault (marriage meant automatic consent to sex with your husband well into the mid-1900s) just as much as contemporary romance writers do.

There are many different laws that cover us in Australia—primarily State and Federal laws (we can deal with international laws in another column!). Jennie Jones recently told me about the research she had to do for her novel A Place to Stay (released in December) when she had to look at how laws on the same issue differed between States. Let’s have a look at what laws might apply to our ‘legal beagle’ dog.

The law doesn’t regulate dogs, only owners. In NSW, a municipal or local council might issue a fine if a dog owned by a NSW resident isn’t micro-chipped or registered. If the dog bites someone in NSW, the victim can sue in the tort of negligence. There may also be a civil action in assault and battery. Additionally, the police might charge the owner with a criminal offence. NSW law would cover all of these actions, but the law may be different in every State and Territory. Not only that, some State law matters will be covered by statute law, other matters will be covered by common law (or judge made law). And if the dog was illegally imported (think Johnny Depp) Commonwealth law will apply because it covers things like customs regulation.

A great place to start when you are looking for specific State and Commonwealth statutes is the Australasian Legal Information Institute, or Austlii ( This database covers all Australian and New Zealand laws. The site also refers to useful ‘libraries’ that group laws together—anything from Health Law to Privacy Law. This site may be too technical for some purposes, but it’s a great way to check whether State law or Commonwealth law is relevant to your plot point. Best of all, the database is up to date and free.