The Australian Pro Bono Centre has rejected Peter Dutton’s “regrettable” attack on lawyers providing pro bono advice to asylum seekers.
The centre issued a statement following the comments Mr Dutton made on Monday on radio station 2GB.
It defended the commitment of lawyers who act pro bono for asylum seekers and refugees, rejecting Mr Dutton’s claims that this “un-Australian” behaviour is “ripping the system off” by forcing the government to defend itself against legal action.
“Lawyers undertake pro bono work out of a professional duty and dedication to the provision of access to justice for the disadvantaged,” the centre said.
“This work affirms the highest tradition of the legal profession.
“Those helped include asylum seekers, homeless persons, unemployed persons, tenants in low-income housing, victims of domestic violence, victims of discrimination and many others, as well as the many organisations and charities that support these people to seek justice in our community.”
Legal bodies were quick to rebut Mr Dutton’s criticism of pro bono work. Law Council of Australia president Fiona McLeod SC said providing pro bono assistance to asylum seekers is part of maintaining the rule of law and ensuring that access to justice is equal.
“It is true that the legal rights of individuals can be an inconvenience to government, so attacking the legal professionals who work pro bono to defend those rights is truly extraordinary,” she said in a statement.
The Australian Pro Bono Centre said the federal government actively supports pro bono legal assistance.
“Major law firms (those with more than 50 lawyers) undertook a total of over 370,000 hours of pro bono legal work last financial year, averaging 35 hours per lawyer,” the centre said.
“This is without charge to the public or the taxpayer. The federal government has actively supported this voluntary effort for many years and formally encourages major law firms to undertake pro bono work through its legal purchasing arrangements.
“Major corporations are following this lead, expecting their panel law firms to show a commitment to pro bono. Defending human rights and the rule of law is a key part of the pro bono work undertaken by these firms.
“This context makes Minister Dutton’s comment attacking the pro bono work of these firms all the more regrettable.”
The centre wholeheartedly rejected Mr Dutton’s comment that lawyers who represent asylum seekers on a pro bono basis are “playing games with these people”.
“Lawyers do pro bono work selflessly because they believe in the rule of law and the importance of access to justice for all in a democratic society, not to play games,” it said.