LAWYERS SHOULD consider how their massive pay affects access to justice in this country, according to Shadow Attorney-General Nicola Roxon.
Speaking at a recent memorial dinner for legal service activist Tim McCoy, Roxon argued that “when some lawyers earn more in a few hours than a huge proportion of the population ever could in weeks it is noticed”.
“There has been a noticeable change in the law if one looks at the changing income of lawyers,” Roxon said. She compared the starting salaries in 1977 for law graduates with those of today, and said that “no other graduate from virtually any other field has seen this type of growth”.
Not intending to join in “the commonplace lawyer bashing”, Roxon asked heaudience only to consider how lawyers’ incomes have “affected the movement for access to justice and law reform”.
“The huge cost of accessing legal assistance contrasts so dramatically with the lack of services people can access that it becomes a stumbling block — surely all these access issues could be fixed if only lawyers were paid less?” she said.
National Pro Bono Resource Centre director John Corker acknowledged that lawyers do get paid a lot of money, but said that this “allows them to spend some of their money and time on providing pro bono services that they may not otherwise be able to afford to do”.
This is the case particularly with some of the larger firms, Corker said, “which are profitable and often make substantial offerings to pro bono in this country”.
“Lawyers’ high pay means that many of them do, but many more should, provide pro bono legal services,” Corker said. However, he added, it is not just as a matter of course that because they get lots of money they should do work for free, but they should as a professional obligation.
Roxon suggested that lawyers’ high wages raised suspicions of hidden agendas. “When lawyers talk about law reform now, the community queries their bona fides”.
“When lawyers try to talk in the media or to governments about family law reform or tort reform they are almost instantly dismissed because of perceived self-interest, irrespective of the merit of their argument”.
This has an impact on law reform and lawyers in relation to the broader social justice movement, she said. “And [this] is a loss that is being felt across the whole community.”
Offering the profession some praise, Roxon said we can underestimate the things that lawyers can do so well. “The ability to question, query, test, doubt and probe is something we are all trained to do and should mark us out as the lead sceptics, challengers and reformers in the country.”