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Investing in the public good
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Investing in the public good

Pro bono work has evolved into an organised arm of the legal sector, with associations, centres, partners and practice groups dedicated to the cause, but it's not just the community that…

Pro bono work has evolved into an organised arm of the legal sector, with associations, centres, partners and practice groups dedicated to the cause, but it's not just the community that benefits from lawyers' participation, reports Sarah Sharples.

During tough economic times, the need for the legal sector's involvement in the pro bono community is heightened. More people are facing financial uncertainty and difficulties with mortgage repayments, unemployment and meeting debts - creating an increased need for free legal advice and representation.

Even the legal aid sector is financially affected by the economic crisis. The lowering of interest rates means there is less money generated from the public purse, which, in part, funds legal aid.

John Corcoran, president of the Law Council of Australia, says free legal services are struggling to meet demand.

"In a context of a $42 billion stimulus package and $57 billion deficit budget it was very disappointing that there was inadequate funding for legal aid and the legal assistance sector. There is a significant systematic crisis in that area and, to a significant extent, that void is being filled by lawyers doing more pro bono work," he says.

"But I have to say the fact that lawyers will do more pro bono work doesn't relieve the governments of their obligations - this is the State and Commonwealth Governments - to properly fund the legal aid sector."

The overwhelming consensus from firms approached by Lawyers Weekly is that their pro bono contributions have increased over the 2008/09 financial year compared to 2007/08, despite the downturn.

John Corker, director of the National Pro Bono Resource Centre, is not surprised by these results. He says law firms support their lawyers doing pro bono work for a number of reasons and that employee demand is a big contributing factor.

"There is a business case for having a pro bono practice, based around better morale and culture within the firm, based around retaining younger lawyers [and] providing them with a broader range of opportunities that they might not otherwise have. If [law firms] didn't have a pro bono practice it costs a lot if you have high staff turnover, so that's part of it. I think there is also an expectation now, particularly among Gen Y lawyers, that good law firms do have diverse and interesting pro bono practices," he says.

"It allows [law firms] to belong to the broader community [and] it gives them opportunities to do that because they can establish relationships with community organisations and charities."

Returning the privileges

For those lawyers who have not been practising for very long, such as Jennifer Teh, who began full-time work at Clayton Utz in February 2007, pro bono work is not just an opportunity to give back to the community.

"It's also very helpful to further your professional skills and straight away - once you start working on one of the matters - you're pretty much running the matter yourself ... you obviously have guidance from your supervising partners, but you have the responsibility for that matter," she says.

"There is a lot of client contact and you get to meet a wide range of people and I think what I get out of it that is missing in commercial law, is that it's actually reality - it's like the real world.

"You really have to be sensitive to people's circumstances, and it can be quite emotional and confronting at times - but I think that makes it all the more rewarding."

Teh has provided employment advice, represented clients claiming on the Aboriginal Trust Fund Repayment Scheme and gives legal advice at "Our Place" - a community support centre in Enmore.

For Luke Geary, an associate at Mills Oakley, obtaining his practising certificate, meant he could found "Courtyard Legal" at the Auburn Salvation Army in 2005 and opened up a second office in Parramatta in 2008.

The centre provides full-time representation for its clients through the firm. Geary has personally run more than 230 free cases and says he gets a lot of satisfaction from working on them.

"I get the ability to balance commercial skills with public interest matters for people who otherwise wouldn't be able to get representation usually," he says.

"Often the people we help at Courtyard Legal have been overlooked or gone through the system unnoticed. The problems they come to us with are very important but they don't know how to resolve them. We try to give those people a voice and the access to justice they deserve by basic human right."

Tamara Sims, from Gilbert + Tobin, is one of the lucky few who works full-time as a pro bono lawyer. Sims has been in the role for the past four years and has worked on a range of matters including Refugee Review Tribunal matters, Aboriginal stolen wages, victim compensation matters for people in rural and remote areas, communications to the UN Human Rights Committee and predatory lending.

One case in particular has stuck with Sims, in which she helped represent an Aboriginal lady, who is a member of the Stolen Generation, try to reclaim unpaid wages after working on farms as a maid.

"I felt incredibly pleased for the client of the Aboriginal Trust Fund [Repayment Scheme] because this is an elderly Aboriginal lady who doesn't have a lot of money, who is living in Department of Housing and getting a pension. This may mean that - for at least some years until she eventually passes away - she'll at least have some money to spend and to enjoy and to give to her family as well," she says.

"Also as part of the Aboriginal Trust Fund work, [what] came out for me was that clients need to tell their stories. Not everybody is listening to what people from the Stolen Generation are speaking about when they are going through this process.

"It's quite an important healing process for people to go through - to have their story heard and to have it ... validated by, in this circumstance, having the money that was rightfully owed to her paid when she [originally] got the nil assessment."

No holds barred

The NSW Bar Association has also noticed an increase in people seeking help, with figures up by about 25 per cent in the 2008/09 financial year. The primary scheme for the bar in NSW is the Legal Assistance Referral Scheme, which has been operating since 1994.

While barristers can volunteer for the scheme, individuals are also approached depending on the specialty involved in the case, with more than 2000 barristers practising in NSW. There is also a Duty Barristers Scheme that operates from the Downing Centre where two barristers are rostered on each day to deal with unrepresented individuals.

Alastair McConnachie, acting executive director of the NSW Bar Association, says barristers participate in pro bono work for a number of reasons.

"In terms of people, when they start off at the bar, I think doing these kind of matters is a great way of gaining experience in a broad range of cases, particularly when they are just establishing their name and paid work may not be flowing in as much as it will later on. So it's a great kind of proving ground for new barristers because it can give them experience in matters that they may not otherwise get," he says.

"Apart from that, I think the idea of giving this kind of legal assistance is very much ingrained in the culture of the bar, and I think it starts from the time people start off - when they are very much encouraged to do this kind of thing."

Paul Bolster, who has been practising as a barrister since 1990, volunteers for the duty barrister roster and says it's useful to develop advocacy skills and to get to know magistrates by appearing in court.

"I've helped people out through the scheme who have gone on to get really good results and some I ... have taken on beyond the day I am rostered on. I did a money-laundering case for a guy and had a really good result for him, got the case knocked out at committal and got an order for costs," he says.

The good and the bad

Meanwhile, Geary says the number of cases that he has lost in the last four years can be counted on one hand, but a court room win sometimes isn't enough. He says that one of his clients was released from jail and said she was motivated to turn her life around. However, she was then picked up for a minor shoplifting offence - stealing $7 worth of underwear.

"Ultimately we were successful in avoiding her parole being called up. But about four weeks later she hung herself and that case has stuck with me in the sense that you might have a win in the court one day, but the clients that you deal with in this sort of work become personally attached to you and when something tragic happens in their life it affects you," he says.

"It's a tough area to work in so you have to be constantly motivated and something like that can really put you off. But you realise that, obviously, people have a lot of issues and you can't be there in respect of all of them.

"You just do your best to help them get through the difficult legal situation they're in and you hope that there is going to be someone else in a different field who can assist them with what they need there."

However, Geary does have a success story from the tragic loss. He has been acting for the fiancé of his deceased client, who, after court-ordered drug rehabilitation, will be facing sentencing this week.

"I am very confident that he'll stay out of jail and be able to get on with his life. He now spends three days a week at his mum's farm where he sees his son and he hasn't lost his housing with the Department of Housing. He hasn't gone to jail, he hasn't died and he hasn't taken any drugs for quite a while now, so I suppose that is part of the good story that comes out of the bad," he says.

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