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Unsolicited (Letters to the editor)

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Low turnout disappoints.

On 12 and 13 June 2008 Australian Women Lawyers held its second biannual conference, entitled “Creating Justice”. The calibre of speakers was impressive, and the conference presentations and discussion were correspondingly stimulating and provocative. Speakers included the Chief Justice of the Family Court, the Chief Justice of New Zealand, the Chief Commissioner of Police, the Solicitor General of Victoria, judges of the Supreme Courts of Victoria and Tasmania, the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner and a judge of the Federal Court of Australia, as well as senior members of Australian academia and the Bar. Congratulations to the organisers.

What surprised us was the low turnout from our fellow solicitors in Melbourne. Victorians made up a third of the delegate list, but of this group we counted six from medium and large firms. There were 25 solicitors from private practice generally (that is, from the whole of Australia). Of these, five came from three large national commercial law firms.

We were unable to find recent statistics of how many female solicitors are engaged in private practice in Victoria or nationally. However, a 2001 Law Society of NSW report showed that there were 3835 female solicitors in private practice in NSW in 2001. Of these, 1733 were working in firms with 21 or more partners. We expect that the figures today would not be dissimilar.

What is it about working in a large firm that prevents women from attending a conference with this calibre of expertise and position? Are lawyers too busy pursuing the commercial goals of their firms to be able to participate in a conference entitled “Creating Justice”? Recent research may explain some of the factors – see an analysis of the billable unit by Campbell, Malone and Charlesworth in The Elephant in the Room: Working-time patterns of solicitors in private practice in Melbourne, Working Paper No 43, Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law, May 2008, and the pressures on women in large corporate firms in Margaret Thornton’s article “The gender trap: flexible work in corporate legal practice”, Osgoode Hall Law Journal, vol 45, no 4, p773. Is a women lawyers association no longer relevant to the bulk of female solicitors in Australia? Can women solicitors in private practice not afford the conference fee? Do they believe they cannot make out a business case to their managers to be financially assisted in their attendance of this type of event? Do they fear stigmatisation if they attend such a conference? We don’t know the answers, but we think the lack of support is disappointing given the efforts that go into organising this type of gathering. Such conferences are infrequent and thus should not be a burden. In Victoria we found the advertising through Victorian Women Lawyers to be extensive, so lack of knowledge about the event is a poor excuse.

Well done to the chief executive of the Attorney-General’s Department in South Australia who wrote to employee solicitors inviting them to take part and offering to finance their registration. There was a significant number of solicitors from the government sector attending the conference, which suggests they remain a leader in supporting the profession generally, and women lawyers specifically.


For providing the letter of the month, Sarah Rey and Mary-Jane Ierodiaconou have won a $50 book voucher from the LIV bookshop, redeemable for the next 12 months.

An onerous trust

I recently started practice as a sole practitioner authorised to receive trust money. It seems to me that the compliance requirements are onerous to say the least, being not only a worry to me but a drain on my office staff. I would imagine that others in my position would share these concerns.

As a solution, may I suggest that the LIV open and operate a “super” trust account on behalf of all law firms not wishing to be burdened with the compliance requirements but who are nevertheless required in the course of business to receive and otherwise deal with trust money. All trust receipts and requests for other dealings would be sent to the LIV account manager along with a deposit/request slip and a client ID of some sort. All cheques to be drawn would be done so via a request from the account manager. As such, all cheques in and out of the firm’s office would be merely transit money, a simple record of which would be made on the client file.

At present I have to pay the bank its account fee out of my office account, acquire and maintain an expensive account-keeping software system and appoint an expensive trust auditor. I also have to worry about it all.

Surely the LIV, acting on behalf of practitioners, can take control of all of this dead money and with the interest earned (which we cannot use) pay for the management of the fund and thereby free practitioners’ valuable time.

It seems that we live in an obscenely bureaucratised, form-and-compliance-based world as

it is. Any relief would be worthwhile.


Payday lending reforms

I am a law student and have recently finished a placement at the West Heidelberg Community Legal Service.

The placement has provided me not only with practical legal experience but also a much greater appreciation of the challenges faced by the disadvantaged. These challenges, particularly financial ones, have become much greater as the rising cost of living hits these people hardest. The challenge just to make ends meet and put food on the table has led to a desperation to find any solution, no matter how superficial or short term. One such “solution” has been payday loans, that is, small, short-term loans.

The providers of these loans say they are just giving a service and the loans are a means of quick credit that can be of great help. In my time at the legal service I found that those who work at the grassroots level, including financial counsellors, believe that rather than being a form of help, payday loans only exacerbate the borrower’s debt. There is a belief that payday lending is centred on exploiting the desperation of battlers.

It appears the Victorian government sees payday lending as an issue, having taken measures to achieve consumer protection such as the implementation of a 48 per cent cap on interest to ensure greater disclosure. However, it appears further action is needed to ensure adequate protection. The emphasis on disclosure being an effective form of protection fails to take into account the realities of payday lending and the circumstances in which people borrow. Desperation often means that simply knowing they will have to pay enormous fees on the loan is not enough to deter borrowers. This is evident from one loan agreement shown to me that made it clear that a borrower would have to pay an effective annual rate of 740 per cent on a $300 loan, yet in desperation for cash took it out anyway.

I believe it is necessary for the government to go beyond disclosure requirements and seek to limit the amount in fees that can be charged. The 48 per cent applies only to interest and is of little value in protecting consumers.



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