[First published Law Week 2012] This week is Law Week, and this is the second of two articles on topics of general importance to the legal profession.
Access to justice is a big issue in Australia, as my Introduction to Public Law class explored yesterday in the context of discussing administrative law merits review. Legal aid is hardly ever available, for example, for litigants before general merits review tribunals like the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and its State equivalents. Yet unrepresented litigants are at a major disadvantage when facing “lawyered up” government departments, despite the exhortation in section 33 of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975 that proceedings should “be conducted with as little formality and technicality, and with as much expedition, as the requirements of this Act … permit”.
Legal aid is also hardly ever available for anti-discrimination proceedings either before the Human Rights Commission or State or Territory equal opportunity bodies. Somewhat ironically, that may mean that these bodies actually exacerbate the discrimination applicants have suffered rather than resolving it, because respondents will commonly be employers, businesses or governments who can usually afford their own legal representation where an ordinary applicant cannot.
When I worked as Director of Law and Policy at the NT Anti-Discrimination Commission in the late 1990s, then Commissioner Dawn Lawrie had a presumptive policy that usually neither party would be permitted legal representation at a complaint hearing. It certainly didn’t endear her to most of the local legal profession, but personally I strongly agreed with the policy. It meant that both parties were on a reasonably “level playing field” at least in the hearing itself. The right to natural justice is seen in administrative law, somewhat self-servingly some might think, as contributing to “natural justice” whereas it may paradoxically work an injustice where only one side can afford a lawyer.
Community legal centres provide a partial answer to the problem of access to justice, as to a limited extent does the phenomenon of private law firms providing pro bono representation to some people. Hugh de Kretser, Executive Officer of the Federation of Community Legal Centres (Victoria), published an article about this in the Herald Sun a couple of days ago as part of Law Week:
One of the funny things that happened when I moved from working in a big corporate law firm to a small community legal centre was that people were suddenly interested in what I did for a living. Before, if I met someone at a barbecue and told them I was a corporate lawyer, the conversation would stall. Now, the response is: Oh, so you’re a good lawyer.
The 500 or so lawyers who work in community legal centres and Victoria Legal Aid are good lawyers. Many could get paid much more working in commercial law but, driven by a passion for justice, choose a career that is all about leveling the playing field for people who can’t afford a lawyer.
But they’re not the only good lawyers. As a profession, lawyers care deeply about access to justice. Yes, some lawyers charge high fees, but the legal profession also does a vast amount of work for free for people who can’t otherwise get legal help. Known as “pro bono”, this work delivers literally millions of dollars worth of free legal help to needy Victorians every year.
Many law firms have signed up to a target of 35 hours of pro bono legal work per lawyer per year, and many exceed this target. More than 1000 lawyers and law students also volunteer in Victorian community legal centres each year.
The chronic underfunding of community legal centres and legal aid risks creating a system where only the rich and powerful can access the law. Pro bono work by lawyers is a vital safety net that helps to ensure that people don’t fall through the cracks.
However, while “many” law firms might have signed up to a target of 35 hours of pro bono legal work per lawyer per year, most have not. Even for those who have, that’s a target of much less than one hour per week per lawyer. Moreover, given that larger law firms informally expect their young lawyers to work at least 60 hours or so per week, it’s a rather small target indeed though certainly better than nothing.
Nevertheless, de Kretser’s article has sparked an idea. What if the legal profession were to set out actively to broker a national Access to Justice Accord with Commonwealth, state and territory governments aiming at a dramatic boost in community access to justice? If we as lawyers want to be taken seriously in our claims to be a true profession with a real commitment to the public interest and social justice rather than just a money-making industry, this is exactly the sort of initiative we should be pushing. Here’s my idea:
- The profession would accept that it would henceforth be a condition of renewal of practising certificates of all private lawyers (barristers and solicitors) that they must undertake a minimum of 92 hours of pro bono work per year. That amounts to roughly 2 hours per week per practitioner, a significant commitment but hardly impossibly burdensome.
- The quid pro quo would be that Commonwealth, state and territory governments would have to agree to maintain existing legal aid funding in real terms and would commit to boosting funding to community legal centres by a combined total of at least $20 million per year.
Of course there would need to be some safeguards to ensure that practitioners could not easily evade the pro bono commitment e.g. by characterising existing “freebies” for mates as pro bono work or “doing a Keddies” on the real number of (otherwise billable) hours spent on it. Those dangers could largely be avoided by requiring existing legal aid organisations to assess and approve eligible pro bono clients (people who qualify on a means tested basis for legal aid but whose type of matter is not eligible for aid, or who just fail the means test by a whisker) and to assess and acquit the firm’s bill at the end of the matter.
Anyway, I’m going to cast this bread on the waters by tweeting it to CDU’s numerous lawyer followers. Let’s see what happens. Are we a profession or just an industry? If the profession takes up an idea like this it would not only dramatically enhance access to justice in Australia but do much to break down the sort of negative perception of lawyers exemplified by the image accompanying this article.