A BITTER feud over who should bear responsibility for funding pro bono legal work stole the limelight at last week’s national pro bono conference in Sydney.
Tensions between the legal profession and the Commonwealth Government, which refused to guarantee further financial support, were evident as lawyers pre-emptively accused politicians of walking away from their philanthropic duties.
Representing the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s department, senior government official Ian Govey was hounded for answers by delegates at the Second National Pro Bono Conference, concerned about an imminent shift of financial burden.
“There seems to be confusion between the state’s responsibilities and professional responsibilities,” claimed director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Andrea Durbach, who sat alongside Govey during an explosive two-hour panel discussion. “We see existing services which are already struggling being called on to pick up because government can’t service it. This is okay if you properly skill, properly enhance and properly resource people.”
Pressed on whether or not the Government would continue to support the National Pro Bono Resource Centre when its initial commitment of $2.5 million runs dry in 2006, Govey said news of the private sector shouldering more of the burden should come as no surprise to firms.
“From the outset [the Government] has said it will only fund the Centre for four years and then leave it to stakeholders,” he explained. “It was always envisaged the funding would be for stakeholders. That was always the original intent.”
Despite the stonewalling, Govey was forced to weather a barrage of questions from attendees wary of — as described by Durbach — “an invidious shift in responsibility that diminishes the quality of services”.
Although cognisant of keeping pro bono and legal aid separate, many on hand were nevertheless adamant that cuts to either would impact on the quality of both.
Govey, who became increasingly frustrated by the frequency of resource-related queries, said Government “did not see pro bono as a substitute for legal aid” and confirmed there were no cut-backs planned for the latter.
“There is a huge demand and there will never be enough legal services to meet this demand,” he added.
But most in attendance felt resources were not directed to areas of most demand, such as family and criminal law matters. Describing the current situation as a “mismatch”, Sparke Helmore pro bono coordinator Michael Rosenfeld called on the Government to offer firms “incentives” to extend their programs to those fields more traditionally aligned with legal aid.
Pointing out that the noted providers of pro bono work — large CBD commercial law firms — possessed little expertise in family or criminal law, Rosenfeld suggested government assisted training schemes or regional secondments might redress the balance.
“Law firms are hesitant to extend their pro bono to these area [family and criminal law] because they fear there will be an increased reliance on the private sector to continue to take on work as a substitute for legal aid,” he said. “Maybe if there were assurances from government that expanded work would not affect future funding there would be less concern.”
However, not all sympathised with those from the big end of town. Amongst those who claimed the profession should take on more responsibility for pro bono was Argentine professor and star attraction Martin Bohmer.
“The state should be aware of their power and law firms should be aware of their privilege,” he said. “If I were government I would go to the profession and say, ‘We gave you this franchise, it’s for the right of the people, we’re using you for the people to get their rights. The profession should be defensive here, not the government.”
Victoria Mullings, principal solicitor at Melbourne’s Peninsula Legal Centre, emerged disconcerted by cries for assistance from big firms. Echoing Bohmer’s sentiments she said: “[Big firms] must realise they are in a privileged position to be paid so much for what they do. They make huge profits and as a payback it’s reasonable to expect them to extend their programs into more grass roots type of work.”
Firms should not be relied upon to assist with day-to-day matters, but their assistance would be much appreciated in “complex” family and criminal cases rather than “sexy work, with high public profile”, she said.