ALTHOUGH THERE is widespread agreement that the Law Council of Australia (LCA) needs more resources to fulfil its brief, there is contention over whether that money should come directly from individual lawyers as members, or continue as capitation fees from the law societies and bars.
And with the future structure of the LCA to be hammered out by the end of March, with the likely addition of the Major Law Firm Group to the board, the time is fast approaching for a final decision to be made.
Tim Bugg, president of the LCA, sees the provision of a seat to the major firm group, along with existing seats to constituent bodies and executives, to be the way forward. However, Geoff Provis, president of the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) favours direct membership to a national organisation, with the possibility of state and territory representative bodies reverting to “state chapters”.
Provis believes a single, well-resourced national representative body, similar to the American Bar Association, is not only necessary but inevitable. Ideally that would take the form of the LCA, but could exist under a different name.
“What I want to see is preferably the [LCA] being a unified body with direct membership by members throughout Australia — [with] as close to 100 per cent membership as you can get — as a powerful advocacy body for lawyers in Australia to government and to the public,” Provis said.
”What we have in mind is one body, society [or] institute — call it what you will — and hopefully it would be the [LCA].”
But not all of the representative bodies are sold on the idea, and the problem could come down to asset ownership. According to Provis, the board of the LIV would “look realistically” into being absorbed, assets and all, into a national body, leaving the LIV as “a state chapter”. But the loss of asset ownership from other bodies may not be such a welcome idea.
“The assets are currently vested in those state bodies. We say one of the real problems with the current model we have is that the money is with the constituent bodies,” Provis said. “I don’t think that is the best model.
“It’s an idea that we at the LIV believe very strongly in, but I’m the first to acknowledge that it doesn’t yet have wide acceptance throughout the other law societies and bars in Australia. It’s a long road,” he said.
While visiting Sydney last week, Bugg told Lawyers Weekly that Provis’ position had been floated as an alternative, but was not widely accepted by the other constituent bodies.
“That model for the LCA has been rejected for current purposes,” he said. “That is something that has been raised — it’s no surprise, a lot of people have talked about it — but the reality is that the current environment doesn’t support it, and it is not going to happen in the near future.”
Changes to the structure of the LCA will not be made lightly. A meeting of LCA directors has been called for early February, with the question of constitutional change being determined at the Australian Legal Convention in Sydney at the end of March this year, Bugg said.
This change will not incorporate Provis’ direct membership plan, for as Bugg said, “the overwhelming view is that what the Law Council needs is more resources … to deal with the increasing number of national and international issues it deals with”.
“I understand what [Provis] is saying, and indeed the idea of there being an entity which has all the assets, etcetera, at a national level has been considered,” Bugg said. “But at the moment it just isn’t the appropriate way to go, and that’s what our members are telling us.”
Such members include the influential Major Law Firm Group, made up of legal heavy weights Allens Arthur Robinson, Blake Dawson Waldron, Clayton Utz, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Deacons, DLA Phillips Fox, Freehills, Mallesons Stephen Jaques and Minter Ellison.
According to Bugg, membership of the group reflects the nature of their national and international practices and the sheer number of lawyers they employ — collectively more than 6,000. And this exclusive group is more than happy to continue supporting the LCA and the law societies and bars, he said.
“That group has made it very clear that it regards the [LCA] very highly, it wants to see the [LCA] better resourced so that it can concentrate on its brief, which is to address national and international issues.
“And it is also keen to continue its support of the law societies, by continuing to involve their lawyers in the membership of the law societies, and indeed to increase that membership by getting lawyers who are not currently members of the law society to join those law societies,” Bugg said.
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