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Unsolicited (Letters to the editor)

Every Issue

Cite as: (2007) 81(7) LIJ, p. 8


No easy answers to drug issues

The discussion regarding Peter Hayes QC and drug use has raised some im-portant issues. [The media reported extensively on the tragic death of Mr Hayes in May with reports claiming he died of a recreational drug overdose administered by another person. A woman has been charged with allegedly administering a drug of dependence to Mr Hayes.]

The media has concentrated principally on whether senior barristers use drugs such as cocaine.

Frankly, I think it should be accepted that some wealthy professionals, including lawyers, use illicit drugs.

The real issue we must face is what is the responsibility of the profession – fellow practitioners as individuals and our professional bodies – regarding drug use?

This exists at two levels – education in the first instance and dealing with lawyers who we know/strongly suspect are using.

As to education, I think it might be asking too much of our professional bodies to devote resources to informing intelligent adults about the obvious – drugs such as cocaine and ice are illegal and dangerous.

However, dealing with practitioners who we know/suspect are using is a different issue.

I think a responsibility exists at the micro level of fellow practitioners – both to help the lawyer (our profession has always had a collegiate aspect), but also to prevent the lawyer, if the drug use seems bad, from inflicting him or herself on unwitting clients.

Yes, this might involve dobbing in a lawyer we know.

At the macro level of the professional bodies, an undoubted responsibility exists to both help practitioners in trouble (such as the first counselling session being free), and importantly, to prevent them practising where they may do harm to clients.

The real trouble with this is not the theory, but having sufficiently solid information to either approach the lawyer informally or take formal action.

These issues are not easy and those who have a knee-jerk response are taking the easy visceral response – never a good guide for action.

MICHAEL T HELMAN

SOLICITOR

For providing the letter of the month, Michael Helman has won a $50 book voucher from the LIV bookshop, redeemable for the next 12 months.

Little stock in modern trend

The much publicised news that a leading firm of solicitors [Slater & Gordon] is about to be listed on the Stock Exchange appals me.

Obviously, for the first time non-qualified laypeople will be able to buy shares in a professional practice.

The only reason they will purchase such shares is that they anticipate either or both a capital gain or a high return of interest on their investment.

The directors of the listed corporation will be publicly accountable for the financial performance of the practice.

Naturally with a listed corporation, profitability and the declaration of attractive dividends to shareholders will have a profound effect on the market price of the shares.

Lay shareholders with sufficient shareholdings will be able to sack the chair or chief executive officer and effectively replace them with others. They will have no difficulty obtaining the services of qualified lawyers.

Perhaps, more importantly, the corporation could become the target of predators seeking to take over the practice.

It is conceivable that a legal firm in another country may be able in this way to acquire an Australian practice.

I know that I am a vestigial remnant of a long bygone age, but when I practised lawyers were respected in the community.

We could not advertise or tout for business. No barrister could accept an unmarked brief, and the fee on brief included all preliminary work such as reading the brief and researching the law as well as the first day in court.

The client had a fair idea of what the litigation would cost him if unsuccessful. Now, where fees are charged by the hour the client has not got a clue of the number of hours involved.

When lawyers employed in firms have to fill in time sheets and hopefully can record six billable hours per day, it does not take much imagination to envisage the sort of questions that might be asked by lay investigators at an annual general meeting of shareholders in a listed corporation.

They might also seek public disclosure of some of the principal corporate clients for whom the corporation has retainers as that information may well determine future prospects.

Another criticism is that barristers will be able to buy shares in a solicitor’s practice.

That may prove a useful means of influencing briefs contrary to the ethical principles of the Bar.

If a shareholder is appointed to the Bench, will he or she be disqualified from officiating in any case in which the practice is taking part, even if on appointment the shares are disposed of?

Problems of this sort will arise from time to time.

In the long run with listed practices, the dominating feature will be the ability to operate profitably, and service to the clients will become a secondary consideration, notwithstanding that profits will only be earned if the client base is maintained.

It is obvious that I do not like the emerging pattern.

DR PHILIP OPAS

Life issues are not illnesses

As a young first year lawyer, I was disheartened by your article “Survey reveals depth of depression” (June 2007 LIJ, page 22) – not because it sheds light on what we are being told is a national epidemic of depression, but because of the trite solutions offered by our “national depression initiative [beyondblue]”.

Rather than taking the opportunity to explore and understand the unique existential problems young lawyers face as we enter the profession – and adult life, beyondblue works to label these problems as illness.

Pretending that young lawyers’ unhappiness is “an illness like any other” and calling for “scientifically-based training and education programs” ignores the point.

Young lawyers work very hard to make it into the profession, and when we finally get admitted, lots of us realise that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Legal work can be meaningless, difficult and poorly remunerated (compared, for example, to our peers who chose to go into finance).

Long hours mean that we are hard-pressed to enjoy the non-lawyer friendships made at university.

These are circumstances that young lawyers need to recognise, come to terms with and manage for ourselves, with the help of employers, families and friends.

It is the age-old problem of creating a life worth living, and comes with no simple solution.

Instead, what beyondblue would have young lawyers do is forget this, pretending instead that we are sick and in need of treatment for this malaise.

Rather than self-medicating or taking time out to consider what we really want, beyondblue would have us turn to professionals who will without doubt medicate us, and work with our employers to manage our illness and make us more productive.

What an unhelpful and dehumanising prospect.

MEGAN PEARSON

LAWYER, AITKEN WALKER & STRACHAN

“Harm reduction” wins over “war”

Global drug prohibition started with a meeting of 13 countries convened by the US in Shanghai in 1909.

After a number of subsequent meetings, three international drug treaties (1961, 1971, 1988) were negotiated, then signed and ratified by most countries.

The UN established a number of organisations to develop, implement and monitor policy.

In 1971, President Nixon declared a “War against drugs” in the US.

This was considered a successful political strategy and was emulated by many politicians around the world for decades.

After the AIDS pandemic was recognised in 1981, public health authorities began to realise the critical role that injecting drug users had played in the spread of HIV to the general population in many countries.

AIDS prompted many to begin reconsidering the effectiveness of drug policy dominated by drug law enforcement.

In the past two decades, pragmatic, public health approaches to illicit drugs became known as “harm reduction”.

Harm reduction and drug law reform have attracted increasing support while support for zero tolerance approaches has declined.

Virtually all major UN organisations with responsibility for drug policy now support harm reduction.

All 25 members of the European Union now provide needle syringe programs and methadone treatment.

All of the major Asian countries now support harm reduction though some still support draconian law enforcement measures, including public execution for drug traffickers.

The critical issue is whether drug policy should be considered primarily a health and social issue or whether it should continue to be considered a criminal justice issue.

If it is considered primarily a health and social issue, support from drug law enforcement would still be needed.

This debate should be taken up by the legal profession.

Don Stewart, a former police officer, barrister, royal commissioner and National Crime Authority chair, is now a retired judge.

His views have changed considerably over the decades and he is now a strong supporter of drug law reform - see, for example, http://www.abc.net.au/rn/lawreport/stories/2007/1867862.htm

The debate about drug policy should not be about whether illicit drug use is, or is not, innocuous.

It should be about whether current policy has been effective, is relatively free of unintended negative consequences, and whether this approach represents good value for money.

It should be about whether any alternative approaches might be more effective, accompanied by fewer unintended negative consequences, and more cost effective.

This is a debate that the legal profession should be strongly engaged in.

DR ALEX WODAK

AUSTRALIAN DRUG LAW REFORM FOUNDATION PRESIDENT

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