Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark presented the annual Victorian Bar Pro Bono Awards last night (15 May). The awards honour those who have advised vulnerable people in the community, such as people with disabilities, the homeless, asylum seekers and those affected by discrimination, elder abuse and human trafficking.
“Law Week is the ideal time to recognise the tireless efforts of so many barristers committed to using their expertise to make a difference to the lives of people in our community who would not otherwise have access to justice,” said Victorian Bar Chairman, Melanie Sloss SC.
“The Victorian Bar congratulates each of the award recipients and recognises that they represent the many who offer their service pro bono - freely and willingly - whether informally or formally through programs such as the Duty Barrister’s Scheme and the Victorian Bar Pro Bono Scheme, administered through PILCH.”
According to the Vic Bar, pro bono service by barristers has increased significantly in the past 12 months.
The hours of free, formally recorded service by Vic barristers in the past year was valued at $13.8 million.
A 19 per cent increase in hours (from 2257 to 2685 hours) committed to the Duty Barrister’s Scheme, which provides barristers for those unrepresented and facing court, was recorded, while a 27 per cent increase (from 684 to 869) in the number of barristers registered to provide pro bono through the Vic Bar Pro Bono Scheme, was also observed.
A real difference
Sloss drew attention to the real impacts of pro bono assistance on the lives of individual Victorians.
“The stories of the cases and people assisted by all nominees for the Pro Bono Awards demonstrate a wide range of real and lasting impacts on the lives of people in our community,” she said.
Will Alstergren, a former stockbroker who signed the Vic Bar Roll in 1991, was instrumental in the establishment of the Duty Barristers’ Scheme in 2007. The scheme coordinates willing barristers to assist unrepresented litigants. He was awarded the Victorian Bar Pro Bono Trophy.
Documentary filmmaker Jessie Taylor won the Daniel Pollack Readers award for her commitment to assisting and promoting the causes of asylum seekers; most publicly demonstrated in her award-winning film, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which exposed detention conditions of refugees in Indonesia.
Barrister Rupert Watters, who has worked on 15 matters in the past year, including many for the Homeless Persons’ Legal Service, was awarded the Ron Castan AM QC award. Watters said he believes pro bono is a moral obligation.
Adrian Finanzio, who led a landmark public interest case which tested, for the first time, provisions of the Environment Protection Act and the Climate Change Act as it related to a proposed new power station, was awarded the Susan Crennan AC QC award.
Tom Hurley was recognised with the Ron Merkel QC award for his pro bono work representing a community legal centre in a FOI appeal against the Department of Justice. The appeal spanned from 2007 to 2012 and concerned the rights of prisoners as well as transparency in the prison system.
The legal team which devoted countless hours to fighting for the legal rights of asylum seekers in cases related to the ‘Malaysia Solution’ were awarded the Public Interest / Justice Innovation award. The team, which mounted a successful High Court challenge for asylum seekers, included Debbie Mortimer SC, Richard Niall SC, Kristen Walker, Elizabeth Bennett, Matthew Albert and Craig Lenehan.