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Pro bono: Rights consultation goes national

Every Issue

Cite as: (2009) 83(03) LIJ, p.78

A significant focus of the National Consultation on Human Rights will be the need for a national human rights charter.

Pro bono legal assistance has long played an important role in securing human rights and access to justice for marginalised and disadvantaged members of our community.

Following the launch of the National Human Rights Consultation on 10 December 2008 (the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), pro bono legal assistance will take on even greater importance, especially if the Australian government adopts a national human rights charter.

The consultation’s purpose is to identify how the Australian community believes human rights should be best protected and promoted. A significant focus will be the need for, and nature of, a national human rights charter.

Although some human rights and fundamental freedoms are afforded protection under our current legal system, Australia – in contrast to other western democracies – does not have a national human rights charter.

By harnessing the pro bono power of the private legal sector the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) regularly assists individuals who fall through the cracks of our legal system because their human rights and fundamental freedoms are not legally guaranteed in Australia.

People experiencing homelessness, the elderly, asylum seekers and people with disabilities are just some of PILCH’s clients who would benefit from the adoption of a national human rights charter that protects and promotes civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

A significant number of PILCH’s pro bono referrals involve arguments based on the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic).

Pro bono legal assistance in these matters has helped to secure the recognition and enforcement of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of marginalised and disadvantaged individuals in Australian courts.

Moreover, the provision of pro bono legal assistance has provided lawyers with the opportunity to harness the body of international human rights jurisprudence, a previously under-used area of law in the Australian legal system.1

This has enabled lawyers to develop their skills and expertise in human rights law, and provided occasion to apply international human rights jurisprudence to the Victorian legal context. The adoption of a national human rights charter would create similar pro bono opportunities within the legal profession, in other jurisdictions and on a much larger, national scale.

Federal Attorney-General Rob McClelland has stated publicly that the consultation should “hear from as many Australians as possible”,2 and seek out diverse perspectives from across the country.

PILCH is working closely with community legal centres and not-for-profit organisations, in partnership with its member firms, to ensure that the attitudes and views of Australia’s most marginalised and disadvantaged individuals are reflected in the dialogue about how best to protect and promote human rights in Australia.

PILCH urges individuals within the legal profession to make submissions to the National Human Rights Consultation Committee and/or attend local community roundtables in order to contribute to discussions on:

  • which human rights should be afforded legal protection in the Australian legal system;
  • the adequacy of the existing legal protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms; and
  • how best to guarantee human rights in Australia.

Rigorous debate about the need for, and possible nature of, a national human rights charter is essential to the strength and integrity of Australia’s democracy. The future protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms depend on it.

The consultation committee is due to report to the Australian government by 31 July 2009. For further information about the national consultation, see

For further information about PILCH’s involvement in the consultation process or its work on a national human rights charter, contact Simone Cusack at

SIMONE CUSACK is a public interest lawyer with PILCH, which coordinates the Pro Bono column. Further information is available from

1. See Royal Women’s Hospital v Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria [2006] VSCA 85, per Maxwell J. See also Philip Lynch, “The establishment and role of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre” (2006) 31(1) Alternative Law Journal 42, at 43.

2. “Rudd government announces national human rights consultation”, media release, 10 December 2008, available at

3. The LIV’s Administrative Law and Human Rights (ALHR) Section has established a working group of LIV members interested in actively contributing to a submission to the National Human Rights Consultation Committee. For further information or to join the LIV working group contact Bianca Neuhof at


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