Lawyers’ perceived honesty at lowest level in over 20 years

By Jerome Doraisamy|04 May 2021
Lawyers’ perceived honesty at lowest level in over 20 years

The number of Australians who think of lawyers as being highly ethical and honest has dropped to levels not seen since 1998, according to new research.

Australian market research and analysis company Roy Morgan has released the findings of its Image of Professions Survey 2021, which explored the extent to which Australians aged 14 and over perceive the honesty and ethical standards of various occupations. An online survey was conducted in mid-April and received responses from nearly 1,300 Australians.

Lawyers

When asked how they rate lawyers, only one-quarter (26 per cent) of Australians said that legal professionals have “high” or “very high” honesty and ethical standards.

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This marks a substantial drop in societal perceptions for lawyers: in 2017 (the last time Roy Morgan conducted this research), 35 per cent of Australians rated lawyers’ ethics and honesty highly.

It is the lowest rating lawyers have received from Australians since 1998. That nadir, also 26 per cent, matches the 2021 finding as the worst outcome for lawyer perceptions since Roy Morgan started the research in 1990.

Moreover, it placed lawyers well behind nurses (88 per cent), doctors (82 per cent), teachers (74 per cent), engineers (68 per cent) and accountants (38 per cent). Lawyers did rate better, however, than financial planners (17 per cent), journalists (15 per cent), federal and state MPs (7 per cent each) and real estate agents (5 per cent).

The findings, Roy Morgan mused, were “perhaps unsurprising”, but the company did not elaborate on such conjecture.

Judges

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According to Roy Morgan, Australians have much more favourable views about those on the bench, however.

The findings show that 66 per cent of those surveyed see High Court judges as having high or very high ethics and honesty, and 63 per cent think the same for judges sitting on state and territory supreme courts.

For the first time since 2013, Roy Morgan noted, judges rated more highly than police officers. Perceptions of police have particularly dropped in Victoria, perhaps in the wake of the Lawyer X scandal and the state’s handling of COVID-19 lockdowns. Nationwide, attitudes towards police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement may also be influencing perceptions.

However, the company continued, perceptions of both federal and state judges have declined by 8 per cent since 2017.

For those in the High Court, the number of Australians who deem them to have high or very high ethics and honesty is at its lowest level since 2010, and for those in state courts, perceptions are the lowest they have been all century – not since 2000 have Australians perceived them so poorly.

Roy Morgan did not reveal or speculate as to why perceptions of judges’ ethics and honesty have plummeted in recent years.

Contrast to Governance Institute research

Interestingly, Roy Morgan’s findings were notably different from those of Governance Institute of Australia’s annual Ethics Index.

In late November of last year, Lawyers Weekly published a podcast episode in conjunction with Governance Institute, with Governance Institute chief executive Megan Motto and governance, human rights and modern slavery legal expert Geraldine Johns-Putra, exploring how ethical perceptions of legal professionals had evolved since 2019, and why said perceptions changed in 2020.

In that episode, Ms Motto and Ms Johns-Putra revealed that Australians’ perceptions of lawyers’ ethics improved in the past year, with 45 per cent of respondents deeming lawyers to be “somewhat ethical” or “very ethical”, while 34 per cent saw lawyers as “somewhat unethical” or “very unethical”, for a net score of 11. In 2019, the net score was -2.

The pair also noted that perceptions of Australian judicial officers rose in 2020. Seventy per cent of respondents said they felt that judges across the board are either “somewhat ethical” or “very ethical”, with just 13 per cent deeming them to be either “somewhat unethical” or “very unethical”, for a net score of 57. This was up from a net score of 43 in 2019.

Ms Johns-Putra hypothesised that improved perceptions of lawyers’ ethics are at least partly due to a “general shift” in the broader business community towards more ethical behaviour, and lawyers are duty-bound to follow their clients.

“We’re seeing an increased trend toward [royal commissions and parliamentary inquiries] in use, and I actually think that when the public sees this sort of inquisitorial setting, they get to see lawyers working towards a united interest rather than in an adversarial setting where we have one being contested against the other. Here, we can demonstrate to the public how lawyers can behave in a way that promotes justice,” she said.

When it comes to judges, Ms Johns-Putra felt that people are coming to understand, in the age of coronavirus and subsequent virtual hearings, that those on the bench “have a personality”.

“Judges bring long decades of experience to their jobs and rather than having it hidden away in some courtroom that nobody sees, that’s coming to the public consciousness,” she said.

To listen to the full podcast episode with Governance Institute, click below:

Lawyers’ perceived honesty at lowest level in over 20 years
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