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Laneway breakfast pays tribute to resilient profession

Laneway breakfast pays tribute to resilient profession

By Karin Derkley

Access to Justice COVID-19 

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The legal profession had shown itself to be resilient in an often-challenging year in 2020, but aspects of the profession are calling out for change, participants at this year's Legal Laneway Breakfast were told.

The Legal Laneway Breakfast, which the Victoria Law Foundation normally hosts in Hardware Lane to mark the beginning of the legal year, was this year held on Zoom, with 400 participants joining in to hear presentations from new Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes, Legal Services Board CEO and Commissioner Fiona McLeay, and writer and broadcaster Benjamin Law.

The event is supported by LIV Young Lawyers, among a number of other legal organisations. LIV president Tania Wolff and CEO Adam Awty both attended virtually.

In her presentation Ms Symes paid tribute to the legal profession's willingness to adapt to the "undeniable challenges" of a year that she said "completely upended our lives and the way we work and connect".

"We know COVID-19 has impacted every institution in Victoria, including our courts," she said. She thanked the profession for "their extraordinary work providing access to justice to victims and vulnerable people during COVID-19", and the courts which had maintained their focus on matters involving safety and totally changed their operations by scaling up the use of technology to ensure that virtual hearings continue.

The government was aware of significant court backlogs, and these would be tackled through the justice recovery plan, adding to $80 million in court funding announced last year to ensure that victims get timely access to justice. Ms Symes said she looked forward to working with the profession on aspects of the recovery plan such as a focus on more matters being resolved outside the court, especially family violence matters, safe access to court for all Victorians, and cases being heard and finalised quickly.

Despite the upheaval of the past year the Victorian government had been able to implement some landmark legal reforms, Ms Symes pointed out, including the bill to ban LGBTI conversion practices currently before Parliament, and is progressing legislation to abolish the offence of public drunkenness.

Fiona McLeay too acknowledged a year that was "challenging, bewildering and exhausting and sometimes sad", but that also on many occasions brought out the best in people, including many in the profession.

It was good to see that early fears of a catastrophic and swift negative impact on legal practice proved unfounded, she said. "Anecdotally it seems that many firms are actually doing surprisingly well and certainly better than we thought perhaps 10 months ago. While there were cuts to salaries or staffing or reduced hours, in many cases those have been reversed and we hope that as the wider economy recovers, which the early signs are it seems to be doing, demand for legal services will rise alongside that – and we were starting to see that even as early as late last year.

"It's great to see that in the midst of all that happened last year, lawyers' commitments to their clients and to ensuring access to legal help was undiminished," she said.

However, the global pandemic did expose existing fragilities, she said. "We know that legacy systems and practices in both the profession and the wider justice sector were exposed by the turmoil of lockdown and it's also been very hard on the mental health of some of the profession as it was in the wider community. I think lawyers like everyone else are still feeling a little bit fragile." She urged practitioners to keep a close eye on colleagues and be alert for signs of depression and anxiety.

The VLSB+C wanted to focus this year on building a more client-centred approach in the profession. "The very important research that the Victoria Law Foundation is developing on the public understanding of law will also assist in that. Linked to this is innovation in our legal service delivery, with a focus on what is going to be helpful for a client to access legal help."

Another priority for the year ahead is addressing the imbalance of women in senior roles in the profession, in which only 18 per cent of women lawyers hold principal practising certificate, compared to 36 per cent of male lawyers. Ms McLeay also reminded the profession of the work that needs to be done in ensuring it better reflected the diversity of the wider community.

A positive note for the past year was that the fifth annual governance institute ethics index revealed a large net increase in people viewing lawyers as ethical compared to the year before, Ms McLeay said. It has been hypothesised that this might be as a result of the community becoming more aware of lawyers involvement in public interest work such as Royal Commissions and parliamentary inquiries and "starting to see lawyers . . . working towards a united interest rather than an adversarial setting where we have one being contested against the other".

"I hope this is true and that it continues," she said.

You can watch a recording of the Legal Laneway Breakfast here.


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