The Victorian Bar urged the legal fraternity to support indigenous barristers at the official launch of its Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) on 29 January.
Victoria is the first state Bar association to adopt a RAP. The plan is to attract and retain indigenous barristers through mentoring and work experience programs, scholarships and financial support for practitioners.
Fiona McLeod (pictured), chair of the Victorian Bar, called for firms to adopt its Indigenous Equal Opportunity Briefing Policy, outlined in the RAP, at the launch event hosted by Owen Dixon Chambers in Melbourne. The policy encourages firms to brief indigenous barristers where appropriate.
“We’ll be urging firms to support our indigenous barristers,” she said.
“The RAP is about doing what we can to address the low numbers of indigenous lawyers at our Bar and keeping them there.”
The Victorian Bar joins the Law Council of Australia, the Law Institute of Victoria and a growing number of firms that have adopted plans to promote indigenous equality. McLeod also revealed that other state Bars are interested in following suit, with the New South Wales Bar Association “not far behind us”.
Currently, there are five indigenous barristers in Victoria, one in NSW, three in Queensland and one in the Northern Territory.
Linda Lovett, Victoria’s first indigenous female barrister, also spoke at the launch event. She told Lawyers Weekly that the RAP will go a long way to addressing some of the challenges indigenous Australians face when attempting to join the Bar.
“They often don’t know what’s available to them, which is why the mentoring program is absolutely critical,” she said. “Many also can’t meet the high costs of becoming a barrister – the Bar Reader’s Course is several thousand dollars, which many can’t afford.”
Lovett reflected on her own experience of taking the Reader’s Course at a time when there were no practicing indigenous barristers in the state. She was only the second indigenous person to sign the Bar Roll in Victoria, after Professor Mick Dodson, who became a barrister in 1981.
“When the Victorian Bar realised that there was no other indigenous person to be my mentor, they offered me assistance ... I was very lucky,” she said. “Then they set to work about how to attract and retain indigenous barristers.”
While McLeod admitted that the number of indigenous barristers in Victoria remains modest, it has the best record in the country. “Something we’re doing in Victoria is going right,” she said. “A number of our indigenous members come from rural communities so something in our support mechanisms must be working.”