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Call for greater bush commitment

Briefs

Cite as: Jan/Feb 2011 85(1/2) LIJ, p.18

The LIV has called on the state government to undertake initiatives to increase legal services and improve attraction and retention rates of lawyers in rural Victoria.

The measures include offering allowances and bonuses for relocation, increasing clinical placements for law students and graduates, and a law student scholarship scheme.

Other initiatives could include state tax incentives such as payroll tax exemptions, subsidised or free housing and government legal work for rural, regional and remote (RRR) lawyers.

The LIV believes these programs could overcome retention and recruitment difficulties and lead to greater access to justice and economic benefits for rural communities.

Former LIV president Danny Barlow, a member of the Law Council of Australia (LCA) Recruitment and Retention of Lawyers Working Group, said RRR programs were a major focus of the legal community.

“I’m keen to work with Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark, with whom I met a number of times in my role as LIV president. I’m confident he understands the issues concerned and the challenges that exist for rural practitioners,” Mr Barlow said.

Mr Clark told the LIJ that the new state government’s $1 billion regional growth fund, created to provide better infrastructure, facilities and services in regional Victoria, could release funding to upgrade existing court facilities.

“If we address the maintenance and infrastructure problems in hospitals and courts, for example, that would relieve pressure points,” he said.

“Then the bigger picture will look a lot better and more professionals, including lawyers, will consider a move to the regions where there is a very enriching way of life.”

Mr Clark reiterated a pre-election Coalition promise to reduce criminal justice system delays by permanently basing judges in the regional centres of Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and Morwell instead of periodically sitting in those jurisdictions when courts were on circuit.

The profession has been aware of the worsening shortage of lawyers in RRR areas for several years, but a 2009 Law Council of Australia/LIV survey of solicitors practising in those areas (http://bit.ly/fqIoYv) confirmed the profession’s worst fears.

It found 38 per cent of Victorian-based RRR lawyers did not intend to be practising in country areas within five years and one-third aged 20-29 intended to leave their local area within two years.

The results prompted an emergency response and the LCA working group joined forces with the federal government last year to develop a range of initiatives and incentives.

Deakin University School of Law research fellow Richard Coverdale recently told a national rural and regional law and justice conference in Warrnambool that rural residents had little access to justice system programs, practices and procedures.

Mr Coverdale urged governments to work towards equity of justice.

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