The benefits of secondments against the backdrop of COVID-19
The global outbreak of COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on communities all over the world. As the virus continues to spread, it is difficult to assess what its true impact will ultimately be. However, it will inevitably have a significant, long-term effect on our global community and various systems, writes Catriona Martin.
This is particularly the case for demands on the legal system, which has seen an unprecedented increase since the outbreak began.
In response to the current crisis, community legal centres, charities and other forefront organisations are facing huge spikes in demand from vulnerable clients. Charities, which could not cope before the pandemic, are now even more overwhelmed, at a time when they have to work harder to maintain frontline services.
Many of these services have received more calls from people seeking crisis support throughout the pandemic than at any stage in their history.
As the demand increases, it is evident that collaboration is necessary to meet this legal need effectively, with a coordinated response from legal centres and associations, law firms, legal aid, law societies and bar associations.
Larger law firms are in an ideal position to provide assistance to the community legal sector and can proactively address unmet legal need. They can utilise their network to highlight the advocacy efforts of organisations, offer pro bono legal advice and perhaps most effectively, provide quality legal assistance through the secondment of lawyers to frontline organisations.
Secondments are highly beneficial as they directly increase the capacity of host organisations.
Additionally, they provide these organisations with the ability to amplify the voice of their advocacy campaigns, bring particular issues to the forefront and expand their network of resources. The secondee also benefits from working in a new area of law, thereby gaining new skills and strengthening relationships with key actors in the sector. There is, of course, also the altruistic aspect of doing work for a worthwhile cause.
As an example, from April to June 2020, DLA Piper seconded an experienced associate to Economic Justice Australia (EJA) on a part-time basis. EJA is the peak body for specialist social security community legal centres in Australia. It supports its members to provide high-quality legal advice to disadvantaged individuals in the community. It also actively advocates law and policy reform to further its vision of a fair social security system in Australia.
EJA is currently advocating changes to current income support payment rates and eligibility to ensure that vulnerable members of our community are not left without support when they need it.
Leanne Ho, pro bono consultant at EJA commented: “DLA Piper seconded an experienced lawyer to EJA at a critical time when the economic impact of the pandemic was hitting hardest with close to a million people needing income support. Her research helped [us identify] in our briefings to government exactly who had missed out on the COVID-19 economic support measures, including many refugees and people seeking asylum and other temporary visa holders who did not qualify for JobSeeker Payment.”
“JobSeeker Payment should never return to the previous Newstart rate of $40 a day and should be available to everyone who cannot work.”
Focusing on the emergency packages provided by the government in response to COVID-19, the associate, Laura Elliott, conducted vital research into the potential impact of a lack of income support for these individuals. Ms Elliott also worked to assist EJA in communicating important information about changes to social security law and policy in light of COVID-19 to members of the public through fact sheets and a social media campaign.
Ms Elliot commented: “My secondment to EJA was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my professional career. It provided exposure to a completely new area of law, pushed me out of my comfort zone, broadened my [skill set] as a lawyer and enabled me to form valuable new relationships. It was also rewarding and fulfilling to contribute to the impactful work that EJA is doing [everyday].”
Ms Elliot’s work with EJA was particularly significant, given the many issues temporary visa holders are facing due to the outbreak of COVID-19. A total of 1.1 million temporary visa holders across the country are in precarious situations as COVID-19 unfolds, many having lost their jobs and finding themselves with no access to emergency COVID-19 measures such as JobKeeper, or government income support payments such as JobSeeker, limited access to Medicare and visa insecurity.
Many organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers have been completely overwhelmed by the demand for services during this time and are in need of additional support. For example, the Refugee Council of Australia is currently seeking secondee lawyers to support a cross-sector campaign to ensure people seeking asylum and refugees have medical and financial support during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the ultimate impact of COVID-19 on our communities, and indeed, the most vulnerable members of them, is still unknown, it is undoubtable that working together is one clear way to tackle the unmet legal need that has and will continue to arise. Though there are numerous ways law firms can work to support organisations, secondments are certainly an effective and mutually beneficial way of doing so.
By Catriona Martin, DLA Piper pro bono director, Asia Pacific