On 2 March, Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark MP announced that legislation allowing Victorian in-house lawyers to undertake pro bono work will soon be introduced.
Until now, the practising certificates available to Victoria’s 2,700 in-house lawyers limited them to providing legal advice to their employer only.
The government’s announcement came after lengthy lobbying by the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association (ACLA), the Public Interest Law Clearing House VIC (PILCH) and the National Pro Bono Resource Centre that raised concerns about legislative barriers being the principal obstacle to in-house lawyers undertaking pro bono work in Victoria.
If passed, the Legal Profession and Public Notaries Amendment Bill 2012 will amend the Legal Profession Act 2004 and remove “unnecessary” restrictions that currently prevent corporate lawyers from volunteering their services.
Clark said the restriction has long been a source of frustration for legal practitioners and has also been a “lost opportunity” for the Victorian community.
“There is no good reason why in-house lawyers who work for businesses, governments or community organisations should not able to provide the same range of pro bono assistance to the community as lawyers engaged in other forms of legal practice,” he said.
“Freeing up the law to allow corporate lawyers to provide pro bono legal assistance is a common sense reform of the legal profession that was ignored for years by the previous Labor Government.”
The reforms mean Victoria will join Queensland and New South Wales in lifting the restriction – a decision which has been welcomed by Trish Hyde, the CEO of ACLA.
“We have long held the belief that Victorian in-house lawyers should be allowed to undertake pro bono work,” she said.
“If passed, thousands of in-house lawyers, previously prevented from using their professional expertise outside their workplace, will be able to give back to the community just like their private practice counterparts and in-house lawyers elsewhere in the country.”
Hyde said ACLA now hopes to work with the South Australian Attorney General’s Department on similar reforms in that jurisdiction.
Fiona McLeay, the executive director of PILCH, joined Hyde in her praise of the decision.
“The current law significantly reduces the pool of lawyers who are able to do pro bono work. This in turn entrenches the disadvantage many individuals face – legal advice is often expensive and out of reach for many in the community,” she said.
“The proposed reforms will unlock an opportunity for in-house lawyers to provide free legal services for marginalised and disadvantaged Victorians.”
McLeay urged parliamentarians to get behind the legislation and “show their commitment to a justice system that is fair and accessible to all Victorians”.
“Passing this legislation would be a step towards that,” she said.