THOUGH OCCURRING somewhat later than expected, Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls this month launched two new bodies responsible for regulating the State’s legal profession.
The Legal Services Commission and the Legal Services Board form key parts of the Victorian Government’s reforms to regulation of the profession, the A-G said this month. The two new bodies replace the Legal Practice Board, the Office of the Legal Ombudsman and the Legal Profession Tribunal.
“With the Legal Ombudsman, the Law Institute of Victoria and the Bar all sharing responsibilities for complaints and disputes, the old system was cumbersome and confusing,” said Hulls.
The Legal Services Commissioner, former deputy Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman Victoria Marles, is now responsible for complaints against lawyers in Victoria, and has a dual role as chief executive of the Legal Services Board. Marles was due to take over on 12 December last year.
The Legal Services Board will be chaired by Banking and Financial Services Ombudsman Colin Neave, and will be responsible for licensing lawyers, funding and other non-disciplinary regulation.
The two bodies will create a “front door” for complaints about the legal profession, Hulls said. “From today, Victorians can call the Commissioner on a single number … from anywhere in the State,” he said.
Departing Legal Ombudsman Kate Hamond, however, has warned that those heading the new regulatory bodies of the State’s legal profession must ensure they keep oversight of the profession independent of the legal professional associations.
In her final annual report late last year, Hamond said that if the new Legal Services Commissioner, Marles, chooses to delegate “significant regulatory roles” to the Law Institute of Victoria and the Victorian Bar Association, and delivers only “superficially independent public protection, legal regulation will indeed have taken a backward step”.
She argued in a Lawyers Weekly report late last year that the new Legal Services Commissioner would have “a great deal of scope to really contract out an awful lot of the work”. This could involve just obtaining external legal advice, “but the actual handling and running of the investigation, the contact with the public, it’s always been my view that on principle it should be handled by a totally independent body; independent of the bodies that advocate for lawyers”.
The new Commissioner was going to need “strength and courage” to maintain her independence, she said, because her experience as the Ombudsman had been that the professional associations “have never truly accepted independent regulation … and of course they get enormous funds to self regulate, so they want to hang on to that as well — the Institute, [for instance], gets about $10.5 million [per year] at the moment”.
A spokesperson for the Law Institute said that in fact, it received $9.5 million in 2005 from the Legal Practice Board, which is split between regulating the legal profession and other costs, such as educating legal practitioners.
Hamond praised the new regime for ending the “confusion” of the current system, under which complaints can be made to four separate bodies — the Legal Practice Board, the Law Institute of Victoria, the Victorian Bar Association, and the Legal Ombudsman.
Additional reporting by Shaun Drummond.