The 5th National Access to Justice and Pro Bono conference was held from 18-19 June in Sydney. The conference focused on the legacy of the Magna Carta on its 800th anniversary.
While there was some argument as to whether a lawyer or an historian’s view of the legendary document should prevail it was clear that its spirit and symbolism is alive and well. The perception that it stands for long held principles and liberties (whether myth or not) resonated strongly through many of the sessions. The ideas that “no-one is above the law” and “to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice” bore particular relevance in relation to discussions about increased police and security powers under anti-terror laws; legislative and executive restrictions and new powers in relation to migration laws; the behaviour of the Australian Federal Police in relation to the Bali 9; the appallingly high Indigenous incarceration rates; and in relation to justice for the victims of domestic violence and people trafficking.
The theme of the legacy of the Magna Carta heightened discussion about these issues and in particular the state of our parliament, executive and judiciary, the relationship between them, restrictions on due process, and the absence of a Bill of Rights. One of the prevailing themes that emerged was the vital importance of the common law and the judiciary, particularly in relation to accountability for exercise of executive power.
Government funding for the legal assistance sector was also on the agenda. Commissioner Warren Mundy of the Productivity Commission, spoke to the recommendation in the Commission’s 2014 Access to Justice Arrangements Inquiry Report of an increase in Commonwealth funding of $200m p.a., and noted that the Government had not yet responded to the Inquiry Report. Funding was also raised by the recently appointed NSW Attorney-General, The Hon. Gabrielle Upton, who in her speech noted that she had received a letter from the leaders of the major Australian law firm pro bono practices, expressing their concerns about the ongoing funding of the Legal Assistance Sector by the Government, particularly plans by the Federal Government to reduce CLC funding from the 2017/18 financial year.
She thanked those leaders for raising their concerns and made ‘very clear that [she] shared their concerns about the future funding of Community Legal Centres’. She then indicated that she, and some other State and Territory Attorneys General recently wrote to the Federal Attorney General, urging against the proposed Commonwealth Government funding cuts.
Relevance of the Magna Carta in Australia today
A particular highlight was the story told by Eddie Cubillo, the Executive Officer of the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Legal Services about the current relevance of the Magna Carta for Aboriginal people. Eddie told us that he asked his brother in Darwin what he thought about the Magna Carta, and his brother replied, “Yeah its good, I really like the salty caramel one!” Eddie then went on to poignantly say what really mattered was not the Magna Carta, but his people dying on the cold stone floors of prisons without family and without country.
In addition to the dedicated pro bono pipeline session (see Are the “right” people getting the right help?), innovative pro bono projects and individual pro bono contributions were discussed in a number of sessions. For example, the Health and Justice Partnership pioneered by the Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre and the successful Legal Referral Service operated by the Cancer Council. The sessions that focused on particular access to justice problems provided an opportunity for firms to commence a dialogue about how they can help.
Scattered amongst the conference were a number of 10 minute “Ignite Sessions” which were billed as providing “fuel for thought”. Antoinette Braybrook, National Convenor of the Family Violence Prevention Legal Services remarked, in relation to the plight of Aboriginal women in remote communities, “I don’t know who it was but someone said, ‘a great way to deny access to justice is through isolation’ ”. Barnaby Caddy, an international humanitarian aid specialist, had made this comment in his Ignite session about his recent work with the United Nations inside North Korea. Other Ignite sessions showcased the Legal Health Check developed by QPILCH, the Women at Work project developed by Kingsford Centre, and the extraordinary work of volunteers at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service in Sydney.
The Conference achieved its aim of advancing the discussion on the current key issues concerning access to justice and pro bono in Australia, with the high calibre of the over 100 speakers (and chairs) thoroughly engaging the conference participants. The spirit and symbolism of the Magna Carta did provide a vital framework for these discussions.
This was a conference first and foremost about the vital role that lawyers play in providing access to justice for their clients whether through advice and litigation, class actions or simply advocacy. It was an inspiring and a timely reminder about the significance of lawyers just going about their jobs with a keen sense of justice and the importance of the rule of law.
A copy of the program and a selection of papers can be found here.