Commonwealth Attorney-General Philip Ruddock’s absence from last week’s National Pro Bono Conference prompted reactions ranging from disappointment to ridicule.
Ruddock, whose hard-line stance on asylum seekers and detainees as immigration minister raised the ire of many lawyers attending the conference, gave his opening address — which was marred by technical problems — via pre-recorded video.
A spokesperson for the AG said Ruddock was in Tasmania for an Administrative Appeals Tribunal meeting on the morning of the conference
Ruddock told the conference that pro bono lawyers should not be concerned about acting for clients against the government.
“Subject to the usual conflict of interest rules, it’s irrelevant whether or not legal providers have acted pro bono for clients against the Commonwealth,” he said.
While the Government is still considering whether to adopt a strict protocol, compiled by the National Pro Bono Resource Centre earlier this year, that provides a guide to handling conflict, Ruddock’s assurances would have come as welcome news to firms uncertain about where they stand.
One delegate even clapped at the conclusion of the taped speech, only to stop after realising no-one else had joined in.
Bob Gotterson QC, president of the Law Council of Australia, said Australian solicitors and barristers undertook 2.3 million hours of pro bono work in 2001/2002. “The profession’s ability to resource pro bono is not unlimited,” he said immediately after Ruddock’s address. “We can’t be expected to fill the gap left by government services.”
Gotterson added he hoped his address was also being recorded so it could be sent to Ruddock for further consideration.
Amid speculation that the AG might have been at Mother Teresa’s beatification, or that maybe President Bush had decided to arrive early, one attendee said Ruddock “should not be given the opportunity to give his views and policies without the opportunity for the audience to critically engage him.”