The Commonwealth Government is yet to conduct an internal assessment of its briefing policies, preferring to rely on anecdotal and a small amount of empirical evidence, last week’s Senate estimates hearing revealed.
Despite having been able to request equal opportunity data from agencies for the past four years pursuant to the creation of Legal Services Directions (LSD) in 1999, the Attorney-General’s department has not exercised its investigative powers.
“We have not gone out to agencies to ask them for the gender mix,” said the A-G’s first assistant secretary Iain Anderson in response to a question over whether or not the Government had attempted to gain an insight into the level equitability of departmental barrister briefs.
Pressure has been mounting on the A-G to implement a formal equitable briefing policy since August, when a study commissioned by the Victorian Bar revealed that female barristers were being briefed at disturbingly low rates.
The national policy issue was raised by Victorian A-G Rob Hulls, whose Government is using the buying power of large agencies to influence private law firms to brief more women, at the quarterly Standing Committee of Attorneys-General (SCAG) meeting, held this week in Hobart.
Anderson told the hearing the Federal Government was aware of “the encouragement to brief women”, before the report and subsequent urgings from assistant treasurer and qualified barrister Helen Coonan to adopt a national briefing policy.
But neither prior to or after the release of the alarming findings has the A-G’s department quizzed agencies about briefing habits. Anderson cited anecdotal evidence and the report itself as justification for any investigative inaction.
“The public sector is understood to be quite a good briefer in terms of briefing women barristers,” he said, before conceding he did not possess the report’s precise figures and was unaware of any other empirical data that supported such an assertion.
Newly installed A-G Phillip Ruddock is currently sifting through a discussion paper of the LSDs with an eye to making changes so as to ensure desired outcomes are achieved. Andersen confirmed that equitable briefing was on the agenda.
“Our review will raise the question of whether there needs to be a stronger encouragement for the Commonwealth to brief women,” he said.
As well as the simmering issue of equitable briefing, Ruddock has a review of the Federal Government’s legal spend on his plate.
Senior departmental official Ian Govey told the hearing that discussions with the Australian National Auditor’s Office were underway. An independent review into the Government’s legal spend, findings of which were released in September, reported that along with a $100 million blow out in external fees between 1998-99 and 2001-02, the cost tracking mechanisms of many agencies left much to be desired.
Govey refused to accept responsibility on behalf of the A-G’s department for the dramatic spend increase, saying the onus for “justifying expenditure and ensuring that there is value for money” rested with each agency.
“I think in an overall sense we would say that, if there is something that we can do to help process from ... a good governance perspective, we would do that,” he said.