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Pro bono: Heavy medal

Every Issue

Cite as: (2004) 78(4) LIJ, p.82

A new prize formally recognises and encourages pro bono commitment by law students during their studies.

The commonwealth Attorney-General’s National Pro Bono Law Taskforce, chaired by Australian Law Reform Commission president Professor David Weisbrot, emphasised the importance of “fostering a strong pro bono culture in Australia commencing at law school and meaningfully supported at all levels of continuing professional practice”. The Taskforce Report (2002) highlighted the significant role of universities in encouraging and promoting “high order professional skills and a deep appreciation of ethical standards and professional responsibility”. A prize – the Chief Justice’s Victoria Law Foundation Medal for Excellence and Community Service – has now been instigated as a concrete expression of the commitment by law schools in Victoria to fostering a pro bono culture among students.

Before now, law schools rewarded academic performance through the award of the Supreme Court prize to the top law student at each university as well as through the award of subject prizes sponsored by publishers. Students who maintained a consistently high standard of academic achievement in addition to high levels of regular commitment to activities “for the public good” were not formally recognised for their achievements. The creation of this prize signals a cultural shift toward acknowledging the significance of a “pro bono ethos” for the legal profession.

By instigating this award, Victoria (and in particular the Victorian Pro Bono Secretariat) has demonstrated national leadership in the implementation of a measure designed to acknowledge and promote the legal profession’s commitment to ethical values and community service. The prize encourages, supports and recognises pro bono activities by individual law students during the course of their studies and so will have a positive and lasting impact on the thinking and approach towards public and community responsibility among the next generation of legal practitioners.

The award of the newly struck medal to the student, with a financial contribution of around $500 to the community organisation with a commitment to justice with which the recipient has had some relationship, means the prize will have multiple benefits and beneficiaries. To date, law schools have not been in a position to develop this kind of prestigious prize, but the Victoria Law Foundation (VLF) has provided a corpus to enable ongoing funding of the prize as part of its work in actively encouraging a pro bono ethic among the legal profession. The Chief Justice, who is president of the VLF, said the prize recognises students with “excellence in academic achievement and commitment to community service throughout their law degree and thus promotes the pro bono ethos we value in the legal profession”.

The inaugural winner of the Medal for Excellence and Community Service for 2003, which will be awarded in 2004, is Sanya Reid Smith, who advised that Oxfam Community Aid Abroad would be the recipient of the financial component of her prize. Ms Reid Smith, who has shown a strong commitment to community service for many years, beginning in primary school, has a bachelor of arts from the University of Oxford, a bachelor of science (hons) from Monash University and having begun her law studies at Monash University graduated in 2003 with a bachelor of laws from the University of Melbourne. Her excellent academic record includes a Rhodes scholarship from 1999-2002, membership of winning teams in a number of mooting competitions and citizenship awards for community service. The Chief Justice said she was delighted to award the prize to Ms Reid Smith as she had more than satisfied the selection criteria of “demonstrating a commitment to community service throughout her law studies as well as excellence in scholarship”.

Ms Reid Smith said she intends to use her combined knowledge of the three disciplines – law, science and economics – to further her goal of promoting legal, research and political initiatives to make affordable drugs and treatments available in developing countries. After qualifying as a solicitor she hopes to work in international trade law and do public sector work. Her community service activities have already included research for Medecins sans Frontieres, an internship at the Center for International Development, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, translation work for Oxfam/Community Aid Abroad and for the Commission for Disappearances and the Victims of Violence, and volunteer work for Amnesty International.

This column is coordinated by the VICTORIA LAW FOUNDATION. For further information contact the Pro Bono Secretariat via the VLF’s website

Looking to help?

To facilitate lawyers and firms becoming involved in pro bono work other than legal services, the LIJ will profile a community group and its needs each month.

Name of group Cape York Land Council
Address Ground floor, Port Authority Building, corner Hartley and Grafton Streets, Cairns 4870
Contact person Bernardine Denigan
Tel (07) 4048 1423

Brief description of work of group
Cape York Partnerships is an Aboriginal project in Cape York led by Noel Pearson which has spent 10 years developing land deals and land rights opportunities for Aboriginal people in Cape York. The organisation has developed a project to address the social issues of Aboriginal people, focusing on rights and responsibilities and building up families through education, income management and health.

Current needs of group
The organisation has started an ambitious IT program attempting to bridge the digital divide experienced by indigenous groups. It has a shortfall in IT and business/project managers who can develop plans and proposals, and trainers and multimedia experts.

Volunteers must be prepared to travel to Cape York for anywhere from four weeks to one year, depending on the project.

For more information about volunteering visit:


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