THE LEGAL profession needs wholesale improvement if it is to repair damage done by scandals such as the Cole Inquiry, Shadow Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said in a speech last week.
Despite the central theme of the inaugural conference of the Australian Women Lawyers (AWL) in Sydney being a ‘celebration of excellence’, Roxon warned her audience of lawyers of the growing divide between the profession and the wider community — made all the more obvious by the public condemnation of the use of professional privilege over Australian Wheat Board (AWB) documents recently.
“The public do not have a warm and loving feeling about lawyers. To say, in a political spin, you have a ‘PR issue’ is an understatement,” she said.
Speaking also of the profession’s questionable involvement in the collapse of HIH Insurance and the document shredding policy of Clayton Utz in McCabe v British American Tobacco, Roxon made reference to the “debacle of AWB and the misuse of legal professional privilege”.
She warned against a slavish adherence to the needs of the client by lawyers, an issue receiving abundant attention upon the release by the Federal Court of around 350 AWB documents that had previously been held back by AWB lawyers.
“Law is not based solely around service to a client. Rather the business of law is predicated on a social consensus that there is a public good in having a stable framework for regulating society and resolving disputes peacefully,” Roxon said.
A myriad of firms have been named in connection with AWB, including Blake Dawson Waldron, Arnold Bloch Leibler, Phillips Fox and Minter Ellison, along with notable barristers and in-house counsel. Blakes and Minters declined to comment while the Inquiry continued.
Roxon included the role of politicians in her vision for reform of the profession, saying that improvements must come from the top down.
“It is a downward spiral if there is a lack of leadership at the top of the profession from our first law officer of the country,” she said.
“We politicians must lead by example. We could seek to explain and demystify the law, rather than engage in convenient scaremongering.”
Roxon put forward a number of suggestions for vital tools in the cleansing of the profession’s reputation. She argued for a legal system that “is accessible and responsive to the needs of all Australians, irrespective of the income of the parties or the type of legal dispute”.
She called for “institutions and individuals who actively engage in debates about law reform — a system that is prepared to review its own legal processes and keep modernising to fit society”.
The most important thing, according to Roxon, was to build “on an awareness and appreciation that the legal system’s purpose is to help facilitate a functioning community by regulating and resolving disputes (whether personal [or] businesses) and providing a stable and reliable framework for protecting people and their property”.
Roxon warned that if lawyers and politicians are unable to work together toward a common goal of professional improvement, then it may be the case that “our institutions of government are weakened, the quality of our public debates is diminished, our rights may be threatened and our law making is less informed”.
The AWL conference, launched at Sheraton on the Park in Sydney, addressed human rights as a plenary theme, along with a discussion of property and finance, litigation and corporate governance. The keynote speaker for the event was the Honourable Mary Gaudron QC, an AWL patron and the first female appointee to the High Court of Australia.
See an edited extract of Nicola Roxon’s speech on p30