The president of the Law Society of New South Wales has said the national legal profession reform process could sideline law societies.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, society president Stuart Westgarth said that he used the occasion of making a speech at the opening of law term dinner at NSW Parliament House earlier in the week (31 January) to speak about concerns he has with the reform process.
While supportive of the process generally, Westgarth said it still needs adjustments in "substantial areas, not just putting paint on the ceiling".
In particular, Westgarth highlighted proposals which could substantially lessen the role of the NSW Law Society and increase the burden of regulatory compliance.
"At the operational level, where compliance is enforced, the independence of the profession has gone too far in being under the direct control of the executive arm of government, namely the Legal Services Commissioner," Westgarth said. "The current arrangement, where we regulate with the Commissioner, or indeed the Commissioner delegates some functions to us, is fine."
Westgarth also nominated penalties for breaches of ethical standards by private practice partners and access to justice issues as needing further attention.
"Where there has been a breach of conduct rule by a partner in a law firm, then everyone else is equally guilty unless they can establish certain things, and those things are hard to establish," Westgarth, also a partner at HWL Ebsworth, said. "In a practical sense, it exposes innocent parties unfairly in my view."
Westgarth added that mooted proposals that would provide the framework under which the client / lawyer relationship would function could potentially mean lawyers would be reluctant to represent the most vulnerable members of society.
"This is not a pro-lawyer or anti-consumer stance, it is the opposite," he said. "There needs to be a greater balance [with regards to clients understanding terms and conditions when engaging a lawyer] that does not diminish access to justice."
Westgarth made the introductory speech at the dinner, with James Spigelman, the chief justice of the NSW Supreme Court, using the keynote address to speak about important international developments affecting the Australian legal profession.