In early 2017 the Law Council of Australia embarked on a national, comprehensive review into the state of access to justice in Australia for people experiencing significant disadvantage.
The Justice ProjectFinal Report was released on 23 August 2018, putting forward 59 recommendations and consisting of 22 chapters totalling over 1400 pages. It dedicates chapters to 13 groups which were identified in the terms of reference as facing significant economic and social disadvantage.
Many in the legal assistance sector and pro bono community provided input to the review and a key strength of the report is that it reflects the lived experience of clients, lawyers and others. The client stories throughout the report are convincing.
As the report notes, the Law Council was continually impressed by the commitment and dedication shown by professionals working, often in extraordinarily challenging circumstances, to achieve just and fair outcomes for people with few other options: sharing and adopting best practice in the provision of pro bono support. The phrase “pro bono” is used in the report in its broadest sense, support for the public good.
The pro bono context
To understand the report from a pro bono perspective the following statements extracted from the report are a good starting point:
- While the private profession plays a critical role in ensuring access to justice, including through its substantial pro bono contribution, governments must ultimately bear responsibility for ensuring an appropriate service safety net.
- The pro bono contribution of the Australian legal profession is substantial, of great value to the community, and is a celebrated aspect of Australia’s legal culture.
- Pro bono services cannot replace government-funded legal assistances services.
- Pro bono services are especially valuable in RRR communities. These include providing free or low-cost assistance to their clients or contributing in other ways, such as being involved on the boards of local not-for-profit organisations or sporting groups.
Important to understanding this report and taking its recommendations forward are the overarching themes first published in March 2018 and consolidated here in the Final Report. They aim to synthesise the project’s research, submissions and consultations, and reflect the findings and recommendations of the project.
Listed in a standalone document, they put the report’s recommendations in context. The themes provide a checklist of key facts and ideas for all in the legal assistance sector and reflect the Law Council and the Review’s Steering Committee findings and thinking about the ways forward.
- We need to build a common understanding of what access to justice looks like within our community, and of our society as a just society.
- People experiencing disadvantage are often more vulnerable to legal problems and disproportionately represented within the justice system.
- The justice system is struggling to help people effectively.
- We are spending on policing and detaining people but cutting back on ensuring that the justice system is just.
- The consequences of a failure to access justice are profound.
- Certain laws, policies and practices are counter-productive and serve to compound disadvantage.
- Many people are feeling the brunt of the law, but not its protection.
- Access to justice underpins healthy, functioning communities.
- Responding to common justice system pathways.
- From preventative approaches to successful exit strategies.
- The law needs a human face – but technology’s potential benefits should be explored.
- Tailored solutions for diverse people and communities.
- Joined-up, bridge-building solutions are worth pursuing.
- Therapeutic, diversionary, trauma-informed and rehabilitative approaches are worth pursuing.
- People-driven, community-driven, strength-based approaches are worth pursuing.
- A better appreciation of the relationship between law/policymaking and legal need is required.
- Investing in the evidence base is essential.
- National approaches, cross-sector dialogue and more implementation.
Enablers and features of successful pro bono partnerships
In its submission to the review, the Centre provided examples of pro bono support for clients in each of the 13 groups identified in the terms of reference and suggested several key enablers and features of successful pro bono partnerships between private practitioners and the public legal assistance sector. These are reproduced in the report and include:
- strong relationships based on mutual trust and respect;
- training for pro bono lawyers regarding the necessary skills and client context;
- cross-promotion of available services;
- dedicated contact points;
- continuing involvement;
- diverse skills on boards; and
- open communication
The report lists a variety of suggestions which were made in other submissions and which it states should inform ongoing pro bono service delivery:
- resourcing the organisations that coordinate and maximise the impact of this work;
- setting consistent aspirational targets and government panel requirements for pro bono legal work based on the Australian Pro Bono Centre’s Target of 35 pro bono hours per lawyer per year (whilst encouraging a flexible approach particularly in relation to smaller firms);
- legal profession peak bodies supporting pro bono legal work through more coordinated referral networks and encouraging firms to make space for pro bono within their billing structures;
- implementing strategies to address identified shortages of pro bono work in rural, regional and remote areas;
- pro bono firms providing more “backroom” support to community legal centres such as computing, printing or IT support;
- recognising the value of pro bono work through tax concessions;
- ensuring access to free interpreter services to assist pro bono lawyers to work with clients from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds;
- better capturing the profession’s pro bono contributions, particularly those of smaller firms;
- encouraging more systemic evaluation of the benefits of pro bono.
This report is a substantial and important piece of work. There is much more in it that will be useful for a long time to come as we face the challenges of how the law and lawyers (in conjunction with many other vital services) seek to better the lives of those facing significant economic and social disadvantage.
A number of the recommendations if implemented will bear directly on pro bono practice, for example, the recommendation that a National Justice Interpreter Scheme be implemented (Rec 5.3). These will be examined in a subsequent article.