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In the public interest

News

Cite as: October 2012 86 (10) LIJ, p.23

Nearly 20 years ago, Victoria’s legal fraternity decided there must be a better way to do more free work. And there was.

PILCH was established to provide a formal clearing house for public interest pro bono work and in two decades has grown from a mere proposal to become a legal force that has influenced government policy, shaped public opinion, initiated law reform and enhanced access to justice.

There are not many professions that actively pursue providing services without charge with as much passion as the legal industry.

PILCH executive director Fiona McLeay said the legal profession’s commitment to pro bono work was ingrained in many of its members.

“Lawyers often have a traditional view of what it means to be part of a profession . . . [the concept is that] you have special skills and knowledge that others don’t have and these skills are important to the proper functioning of a democratic society,” she said.

“You have an obligation to assist, it’s an ideal that is very old, you can track it back hundreds of years, its been a thread throughout the profession.”

Ms McLeay said many people believed if a lawyer was doing work free of charge there must be something in it for them.

But through the years she said many lawyers had told her pro bono work was a reminder of what had driven them to become part of the legal profession –a sense of public service and a desire to help the disadvantaged.

Fitzroy Legal Service and the then Consumer Law Centre of Victoria (CLCV) first proposed to set up a public interest pro bono clearing house in Melbourne in 1993. Sydney had established its own PILCH a year earlier based on a successful model operating in New York.

By early 1994, a small group of Melbourne firms agreed to pursue a similar project and with funding from the CLCV, PILCH was born.

Melbourne lawyers were already providing pro bono work but PILCH offered a more formal structure and a way to specifically promote cases in the public interest.

“The idea was that it would assist law firms to get access to pro bono clients . . . to do pro bono beyond the capacity of legal aid and community legal centres, with a particular focus on matters in the public interest that would have a broader impact,” Ms McLeay said. “Firms wanted a central body to help find pro bono legal work but didn’t have the knowledge or resources.”

In 1999 PILCH became an independent organisation from CLCV and three years later it expanded to manage the pro bono programs of the Victorian Bar and LIV, both of which did not require a public interest component and were more broadly interested in promoting access to justice.

Last year PILCH received nearly 2200 inquiries and made just under 500 successful referrals to some of its 600 registered barristers and more than 180 Victorian law firms.

Through the years PILCH has widened its scope from being Victoria’s “one-stop shop” for pro bono legal services, to establishing a Homeless Person’s Legal Clinic (HPLC), a Seniors Rights Legal Clinic and a specialist legal service for not-for-profit community organisations called PilchConnect.

The HPLC, an outreach service, has helped about 5000 marginalised people since it was set up more than a decade ago.

“Instead of clients coming to us, teams of lawyers from law firms went to agencies [working with] a homeless client group that was largely not accessing legal services very successfully,” Ms McLeay said.

She said PILCH had been active in identifying unmet legal need that would also best match the interest and skills of those in the private legal profession interested in pro bono work.

Immigration cases have become a focal point for PILCH and the area of law with the most referrals from the organisation last year – 54 – followed by 45 in criminal law, intervention and compensation, and 35 in property law.

PILCH’s identity has been largely forged by its role and work in immigration cases, most notably during the Tampa crisis. In August 2001, the then Howard government propelled the issue of “boat people” to the forefront of political debate when it refused to let 433 asylum seekers, rescued from the sea by the Norwegian vessel MV Tampa, land on Australian soil.

PILCH coordinated a legal challenge to the government’s controversial stance. The Federal Court proceedings were initially successful but overturned on appeal by the Full Court. The Full Court, however, ruled against a costs application by the Commonwealth government because of the public importance of the case.

Despite the outcome, the case became a lightning rod for members within the legal fraternity who continue to challenge the legal implications of immigration policies that are often seen as being driven by political considerations more than notions of justice.

Ms McLeay said Tampa helped carve PILCH’s future direction and was a “coming of age” moment for the organisation. “We stood up a little bit more and took a clear position and inserted [ourselves] into the public debate and tested whether our members and our brand would stretch to being more proactive [and if] supporters would encourage and support it, and they did,” she said.

Returning to the legal profession’s dedication to access to justice, Ms McLeay nominated a successful law reform campaign to allow inhouse lawyers to do pro bono work as a recent achievement for PILCH.

The resulting amendments to the Legal Professions Practice Act will allow more than 2700 corporate and government lawyers to offer pro bono services.

“We persuaded the government to make these changes. There are not many industries that lobby the government to make it easier for them to do work for free,” she said.

PILCH is currently looking at ways to expand its Homeless Person’s Legal Clinic, which has been replicated across Australia, into outer Melbourne and regional areas and looking ahead to the next 20 years, Ms McLeay said PILCH would continue to grow but not just for growth’s sake.

“We don’t see our role as simply getting lots of lawyers so we can address every single area of unmet legal need,” Ms McLeay said.

“The aim is always to be strategic about identifying areas we think can make the best impact and where it’s the best use of pro bono resources.”

Ms McLeay revealed the Victorian organisation was working on amalgamating with its New South Wales counterpart in the next 12 months and a name change was also being considered.

“We’re recognising that the legal profession is changing, firms are changing, [there’s] a national profession coming in, all sorts of pressures that are happening, and we’ve always been an organisation that’s seen change as positive and responded to it and so it’s a very exciting initiative,” she said.

She said Victoria and NSW’s PILCH services were currently working on a structure and strategy that would “hopefully set up the new organisation to be around for the next 20 years”.

Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark said the Coalition government was a strong supporter of the work of PILCH in “co-ordinating legal representation and advice for disadvantaged Victorians”.

PILCH coordinates the LIJ’s Pro bono column. To find out how to get involved in PILCH visit http://tinyurl.com/cng2b4l

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