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Blakes, Clayton Utz, Freehills in pro bono win
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Blakes, Clayton Utz, Freehills in pro bono win

After two years' of pro bono legal efforts, law firms Blake Dawson, Clayton Utz and Freehills have seen their work pay off in reforms passed by the NSW Parliament.

AFTER two years’ of pro bono legal efforts, law firms Blake Dawson, Clayton Utz and Freehills have seen their work pay off in reforms passed by the NSW Parliament.

The firms, with the Women’s Legal Services NSW and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, are celebrating after reforms to Sexual Assauly Communication Privilege were passed last week.

The reforms represent the culmination of a two-year pro bono project to protect the rights of victims of sexual assaults during the criminal trial process.

Sexual Assault Communications Privilege (SACP) prevents defendants in criminal trials from being able to trawl through a victim's confidential counselling records, the firms said in a joint statement.

Since February 2009, Blakes, Clayton Utz and Freehills, Women's Legal Services NSW and members of the NSW Bar Association have represented more than 90 victims of sexual assault on a pro bono basis under a SACP Project before the District and Local Courts at the Downing Centre and Parramatta.

The experiences of the Project informed the amendments which have now been made to the Criminal Procedure Act.

The policy behind SACP is to protect the confidentiality of sexual assault counselling, so as to encourage sexual assault victims to seek and stay in counselling, and to make victims feel more confident about being able to report sexual assaults.

The firms said these reforms ensure that the victim is made aware of her or his right to oppose the production of their counselling records in court, and that the court recognises SACP as an essential element in the criminal trial process.

Until last year, most victims had no capacity to enforce those rights before the court.

According to the law firms involved, the project demonstrated that legal representation for victims makes a significant difference in preventing the disclosure of privileged documents. In 91 per cent of cases where documents returned under subpoena contained protected confidences, the complainant was able to assert the Privilege successfully.

A pro bono model is not a long-term solution to providing a comprehensive and sustainable service to the hundreds of victims of sexual assault before NSW Courts each year, the firms said.

Blake Dawson, Clayton Utz, Freehills and Women's Legal Services said they welcome the announcement by the Attorney-General of $4.4 million of funding over 4 years for a specialist victims' advocacy service, which will ensure that victims can receive advice and representation in asserting SACP.

David Hillard, Pro Bono Partner at Clayton Utz said on behalf of the Project partners, "these reforms have been secured through the perfect example of a pro bono project - an identified legal access problem has been tackled collaboratively, reformed through legislation, and with the State now picking up responsibility for future representation of victims.

“Our organisations started this project to highlight why SACP was not working properly, to get those problems fixed, and to ensure that government-funded services were available for victims to assert their rights. It is so pleasing to see collaboration between private lawyers working pro bono, the community legal sector and the DPP, bring real change to this issue".

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