The Victorian and NSW chief justices, along with the Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Australia and the Law Society of NSW, have sent messages of support to the profession as challenges with mental health and technology mount in lockdowns.
As both states prepare for yet another week in COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, their chief justices offered words of encouragement to solicitors and barristers and have reinforced the message to reach out to the courts and request help when needed, whether it be for additional time on a matter or assistance with technology issues.
NSW Chief Justice the Honourable Tom Bathurst AC said he has been in contact with the presidents of the state’s Bar Association and Law Society about the many difficulties of working from home, including juggling work commitments with carer roles and working in isolation away from the support network of colleagues.
“All judges of the court sympathise with those working under these difficulties and understand the pressure they are placing on practitioners,” Justice Bathurst said, adding that he has raised the issues with the judges of the court at a recent meeting and they are supportive of any measures taken to alleviate the burden on lawyers.
“In these circumstances, practitioners should not feel concerned in seeking from the court extensions of time where appropriate and flexibility in arranging timetables. Such requests will be accommodated wherever possible at least to the extent that they do not operate unfairly to any party in the litigation,” the Chief Justice said.
Law Society of NSW president Juliana Warner confirmed she and the NSW Bar Association had engaged heads of jurisdictions to highlight the particular difficulties that practitioners are facing in the current lockdowns, particularly for those with young children who are homeschooling or do not have a way to work from home.
“We are very grateful for the concern expressed for the legal profession during these discussions, and the following responses that we have received. This ongoing support and understanding has strengthened our profession’s relationship with the courts during the past 18 months, for the benefit of our clients and the communities that we serve,” Ms Warner commented in a recent statement.
Responding to these discussions, Federal Court of Australia Chief Justice the Honourable James Allsop AO said the judges of the court appreciate how difficult the lockdowns and other restrictions can be on the profession and added the judges are “very grateful for the hard work and professionalism” during this time.
Much like Chief Justice Bathurst, Chief Justice Allsop urged members of the legal profession to not “in any way feel constrained” to bring their difficulties into these matters and to express their ability to undertake their work and fulfil their duties.
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank the profession for how they have assisted the court in meeting the demands of this pandemic, and in meeting the expectations and needs of the Australian community insofar as it has required access to justice,” Chief Justice Allsop said in a letter to Ms Warner.
In Victoria, the Honourable Chief Justice Anne Ferguson said she is “deeply impressed” at how barristers and solicitors have continued to assist the community, their clients, and the work of the courts over the last 18 months. She said without this, “the courts could not have continued to operate” during the worst of the pandemic.
Chief Justice Ferguson added that she appreciates the latest lockdowns have been particularly challenging for the Victorian legal profession and that the high standards that lawyers expect of themselves “has been tested” while the “reserves that people draw on during difficult times are not as they were” early last year.
“I want to assure the profession that all members of the Supreme Court appreciate the difficulties that barristers and solicitors are working under,” she said.
“Over the duration of the pandemic, the judges and I have spoken often about the desirability and the need to take into account in all that we do the unusual circumstances that prevail. In particular, I had a number of discussions and emails last week with judges about this given the ever-increasing impact of the current lockdown on so many of Victoria’s barristers and solicitors.”
As a result of those discussions, the court is encouraging all parties to approach the current lockdowns cooperatively and to not feel that they cannot or should not approach other parties to seek their consent for extensions of time or other accommodations. The court is encouraging solicitors and barristers to have an open dialogue and to be realistic about what can be done and how long it will take.
“The court will endeavour to accommodate requests for extensions of time or flexible arrangements while ensuring fairness to all parties. The interests of justice are best served by lawyers being able to apply their skills properly in the representation of their clients,” Chief Justice Ferguson said.
“I again extend my deep appreciation and thanks to all barristers and solicitors for their continuing effort and the critical role they play in assisting the courts to fulfil its function and serve the community.”