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‘Right to disconnect’ conversations aren’t going away, says barrister

“Profound systemic change” is coming for the ways that lawyers work, argues one silk, given how distinctions between downtime and working hours have been “obliterated”. 

user iconJess Feyder 04 May 2023 Big Law
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Recently on The Lawyers Weekly Show, host Jerome Doraisamy spoke with Sydney-based barrister Ian Neil SC about the increasing importance placed on “right to disconnect” legal reform and policies, and why there is increasing focus on implementing related laws. 

Mr Neil outlined how the right to disconnect pertains to the law.

“The right to disconnect is often discussed in terms of it being a human right,” he explained.

 
 

“The idea that underlies it is that workers should have a right to disconnect from work at times when they are not working.”

“Right to disconnect” laws, and conversations about its importance, seem to be gathering steam, with Greens leader Adam Bandt MP introducing the Fair Work Amendment (Right to Disconnect) Bill 2023 in MarchSuch laws have already been applied in jurisdictions around the globe, in countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and others. And, as recently reported by Lawyers Weekly, it appears that too many lawyers complete work duties while on leave. 

The language of 'disconnection' reflects the fact that workers across the board - not just lawyers - are increasingly unable to disconnect from their professional responsibilities, as a result of the advent of the medium of electronic communication, namely email and various online platforms. It says that “technology such as those have eroded the distinction between working time and not working time”, outlined Mr Neil.

“Once upon a time, those distinctions were easily drawn and easily recognised because work had an inevitable physical and temporal dimension.”

“People gathered together to work at particular times in particular places,” he said. “Now — electronic communications have obliterated the temporal and physical dimensions for many types of work — and legal is probably one.”

The defining problem of this is the psychosocial consequences of not having a right to disconnect, not being able to disconnect, not feeling that you are able to disconnect, explained Mr Neil.

Greg de Moore, an associate professor of psychiatry at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital, also spoke to Lawyers Weekly recently and detailed the harms that arise from being unable to disconnect from work.  

The problem was exacerbated by the quick uptake of technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Neil submitted.  

“The experience that the many lawyers had of working from home during the pandemic that, if not initiated, then sharply accelerated profound systemic changes in the way that work is done, organised and regulated,” he noted. 

“The consequences of those changes are still working themselves through.

“One of them has been a revelation for many businesses, many legal practices, many lawyers — a revelation about how it is possible to work effectively remotely, away from what we had always regarded as our places of work, and at times that we had not regarded as being working times,” explained Mr Neil. 

Mr Neil highlighted how this has played out in his personal experience, having been a barrister for over 30 years.

“Every day, I robed up, popped the wig on where it’s still worn, and at 10:00am, I was ready to go into a courtroom somewhere in a court building. I had lunch during the lunch break, court adjourned at 4:00pm.

“Then suddenly, all of those distinctions, temporal and physical — the place of work, the times when work was performed — all were obliterated,” he stated. 

“The revelation that came with that was just how effectively work could be performed in that way. 

“A revelation that the truth of which, and the significance of which, we will never lose.”

“For that reason, profound systemic change is underway, not just in the laws that relate to and regulate work and its performance, but more fundamentally and more importantly, the way in which work is done and the way in which people think about it,” he noted. 

“That’s going to affect lawyers very seriously,” Mr Neil said. “I think, for years to come — it will never be the same again.”