Jane Dixon SC, one of three silks driving a new barrister pro bono program, has told Lawyers Weekly that the Victorian Bar is proving it is willing and able to help address a legal aid system “in crisis”.
Dixon (pictured), along with Will Alstergren SC and Nick Papas SC, recently penned a letter to members of the Victorian Bar inviting them to sign up to a pro bono scheme for unrepresented litigants. The scheme has already attracted more than 80 volunteers, including senior counsels.
Dixon said the move is not a direct response to recent legal aid cuts in Victoria, but rather a way of showing decision makers in the Government that the Bar has “substantial goodwill in terms of its preparedness to engage in pro bono work”.
“The legal aid funding criteria is so tight that it’s highly unlikely these people would have received legal aid funding,” she said.
“[The scheme] is more a way of indicating to those in Government that the Bar can assist the courts with case management and assist clients who would struggle to represent themselves in often complex and difficult proceedings.”
The pilot for the latter part of 2013 will focus on civil appeals. The Court of Appeal Civil Division was chosen due to its high number of applications for leave to appeal by self-represented litigants.
Dixon said the program could become permanent if it is found to benefit clients and clear court backlogs.
“There’s no doubt there is an increasing amount of litigation that goes on in Victoria that is unable to be funded by legal aid and that segment of legal work is expanding rather than reducing,” she added.
Solicitors will also be invited to participate in the scheme, said Dixon, who revealed the Victorian Bar is looking to establish partnerships with firms that can assist in complicated matters that require a solicitor’s input.
Another initiative that Dixon claimed self-represented litigants could benefit from is an Australian version of the UK government’s written guide to parties making applications to the Interim Applications Court of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court.
The release of the guide followed wide-ranging legal aid cuts in the UK, which have resulted in an unprecedented increase in unrepresented parties.
In the guide’s foreword, Sir John Thomas, president of the Queen’s Bench Division, wrote: “The purpose of the Guide is simply to set out a few important practical points for a litigant in person to bear in mind when presenting his or her case.”
Dixon does not, however, believe aspirational targets, such as the National Pro Bono Resource Centre’s target of 35 hours of pro bono work per lawyer per year, are necessarily suitable for barristers’ chambers. She said the Victorian Bar encourages barristers to set their own individual targets given that, despite sharing chambers, barristers tend to act independently.