The 7th National Access to Justice and Pro Bono conference held in Canberra on 14-15 March 2019 continued the tradition of providing a forum for in-depth discussion about contemporary access to justice and pro bono issues. Thank you to all who attended and particularly the chairs and speakers who, without exception, did a wonderful job. Thank you also to the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department for their sponsorship of the conference. As one delegate said in feedback, “A great variety of views and very knowledgeable presenters made for a terrific forum”.
The conference is a partnership between the Australian Pro Bono Centre and the Law Council of Australia. Arthur Moses SC, President of the Law Council of Australia made the opening speech ‘The hard fought arc to justice’.
He stressed that the legal assistance sector remains chronically underfunded and urged delegates to draw on the findings and recommendations of the Justice Project to advocate for change. He reminded us that the Justice Project is the most comprehensive national review into the state of access to justice in Australia since Ronald Sackville’s Royal Commission into poverty and law forty years ago and urged us to revisit the 1500-page report and its 59 recommendations.
In particular he made the important point that in order to influence real change, justice issues must be raised with policy-makers across portfolios and governments noting the recommendation that governments support multi-disciplinary collaborations which address legal and non-legal needs, including health-justice partnerships and culturally-safe holistic models. This, together with Justice Impact tests for proposed new legislation and greater community emphasis on the extent of the ‘missing middle’, were argued by Arthur to be key ways in which the funding paradigm can be changed.
Arthur then chaired the session on the national legal assistance landscape where Legal Aid, CLCs, FVPLS and the ALS shared many stories of unmet legal need and made a unified call for, at the very least, greater certainty of ongoing funding.
The business sessions of the conference followed well from this introduction where areas of need and models of service delivery were examined in some detail by key practitioners from these areas. These included victims of child sexual abuse, homeless persons, people seeking asylum, those denied bail and incarcerated, victims of elder abuse, and those from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities. The Health Justice Partnerships session displayed the diversity of arrangements that are possible with this fast-growing model.
The program featured a number of sessions on the change affecting pro bono practice and the challenge to improve access to justice. Social, political, technological and generational change were all topics discussed as well as the challenges of evaluation and measuring impact so as to have a clearer view of what we are trying to achieve and the extent to which that is successful.
At the conference the Centre launched its new pro bono guide for government lawyers. This is now available on the Centre’s website and has been sent to key government lawyer groups and Commonwealth, State, Territory Attorneys-General and their departments (see story below).
The pro bono stream sessions aimed to focus on how pro bono providers best help those on the front line and the issues arising. In public interest litigation where firms are working with CLCs, important case studies were shared describing firms working in innovative ways both on and off the court record. Key issues identified are good communication, clarity of roles, and the degree of professionalism required for the litigation to succeed (and the various forms of success). The ‘helping the helpers’ session provided a thought-provoking discussion about what criteria firms should apply when deciding whether to act on a pro bono basis for large and/or small charities and social enterprises.
A highlight of the conference was definitely the dinner at the National Press Club addressed by a panel of four senior journalists from the Canberra Press Galley taking delegates ‘inside the Canberra bubble’. Their collegiality, shrewdness and strong competitive spirit provided a highly entertaining and informative session.