Law societies in our region vary greatly in size but all face similar challenges, according to the chairman of the South Pacific Lawyers' Association (SPLA).
“The issues facing law societies in the Pacific are really very similar to the sorts of issues that were faced in Australia and New Zealand and, indeed, right around the world,” Ross Ray QC (pictured) told Lawyers Weekly.
SPLA represents 16 law societies in the region. Excluding Australia and New Zealand, the 14 remaining law societies represent about 1,700 lawyers across the South Pacific.
Papua New Guinea is the largest of these, with around 900 members. The second largest is Fiji, with around 350 lawyers.
Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands are two of the smaller members, but SPLA also includes very small associations, such as Tuvalu, which has only 13 lawyers, and Niue, which has six lawyers. By comparison, Australia has around 70,000.
“The legal profession in the South Pacific is strong and very able,” said Mr Ray. “[But] it is an extensive area with a very small number of lawyers, which introduces resourcing problems for them all.
“It is therefore really important that through associations such as South Pacific Lawyers that we attempt to enable lawyers to go home and provide leadership and direction.”
Mr Ray is chairing a session at the second South Pacific Lawyers’ Conference in Brisbane (17-18 September).
The conference will focus on sharing skills and knowledge to help the South Pacific legal profession to reform and grow. “It's always a mutual learning situation,” said Mr Ray.
A strong legal profession will help maintain stable justice systems across the region, according to Mr Ray.
"This underpins much of what we do,” he said. “The reality is that a healthy legal system is able to then enforce and protect the rule of law.”
He added: “[This in turn] promotes economic growth and development [as] it gives confidence that if there is a problem, the problem can be resolved.
“Without a robust legal system, you have a real impediment to building trade and commerce in the region."
The Australian legal profession has maintained ties with neighbouring legal fraternities through training initiatives for a number of decades.
“I first went to New Guinea in 1990,” said Mr Ray, who is also a former chairman of the Victorian Bar and a former president of the Law Council of Australia.
“I've been to New Guinea on and off many times to do short training sessions. The Victorian Bar has also done that, as has the Queensland Bar and many other institutions in Australia.”
Mr Ray said there is already a great deal of goodwill and shared learning across the region.
However, the “tyranny of distance” and the lack of financial resources of some of the legal associations are challenges that need to be overcome, he said.
A centralised, affordable CLE system that disseminates systems of regulation and systems of legal education would help very small law societies, he continued.
“In that way they get the benefit of what other law societies, that have been funded over many years, they get the benefit of looking at what works and what doesn't work and then implementing what suits their country.”
Some common digital resources exist already, such as PacLII – the Pacific version of e-law resource AustLII – but SPLA is looking into disseminating more resources electronically.
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