Law Council of Australia Annual Dinner speech

Thank you to the Law Council for hosting this wonderful dinner – wonderful as it is every year.

I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

I acknowledge current Law Council President Morry Bailes; incoming President Arthur Moses; former President Fiona McLeod; as well as Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court – soon to be also Chief Justice of the Family Court – Will Alstergren, and other members of the judiciary; my opposite number of course Christian Porter, Graham Perrett and other Parliamentary colleagues; ACT Attorney-General Gordon Ramsey and his colleagues; and members of the diplomatic community.

When I was asked to give this speech, a polite request was made that I keep it ‘non-political’ – after the week we have just had in Parliament that will be quite the challenge!

What we are really here for, of course, is to celebrate the important work of the Law Council of the last 12 months. And of course the President, the directors, the Secretariat and all of the sections have worked very, very hard indeed.

From a personal perspective, as a member of the opposition frontbench with no department and just three policy staff, faced with analysing arguably the most complex bills put to the Parliament – I cannot tell you how invaluable the expertise of the Law Council is.

The advice they provide, including too many submissions to parliamentary inquiries to count, is invaluable to the work Parliament does. It is always detailed and considered, and informs law-making in this country in the best possible way.

The advocacy work done by President Morry Bailes, going from media studio to media studio urging the Parliament not to pass bad law, making the case for legal assistance, and defending the profession, has been very important this year as it has been in many years past.

On the subject of legal assistance, I wanted to make special mention of The Justice Project – a mammoth piece of work led by former Chief Justice Robert French and contributed to by many people who are here tonight.

The final report – nearly 1500 pages long, the product of eighteen months hard work – examined areas of legal need in great detail, informed by real life case studies, and made the case for a significant boost to funding for legal assistance services.

It is a monumental piece of work – not just in its length and the amount of work put in to it, but in the contribution it makes to the case for proper funding of legal assistance.

The Productivity Commission told us years ago – in 2014 – that inadequately funding legal assistance services is a false economy, which results in cost-shifting to other areas of government assistance such as the welfare and health system. Not to mention the toll it takes on real people, when a legal problem arises that they cannot afford to deal with on their own, if they cannot get assistance.

I’ve visited a lot of Community Legal Centres. They do some of the hardest and best work done by lawyers in our country, and they are simply too busy to advocate for themselves! So having a group like the Law Council in their corner, making their case, is very important.

As many of you here will know, legal assistance services are a topic close to my heart. The reason I make so much of the Justice Report here tonight is because, devastatingly, it did not get the attention it deserved thanks to another little event that occurred on the same day as its launch. It’s hard to compete with a coup to depose a Prime Minister for the front pages of newspapers!

So I wanted to take the opportunity to first thank all those who worked on the report - including the President at the time it was commissioned, Fiona McLeod – and assure you that your work was not missed. It did make an impact, and it will continue to make an impact. Thank you.

As we close another year, it is worth reflecting on the current state of affairs in the legal profession.

The legal industry is going strong, as it always does. It is a far more stable profession than politics! I would note that there has been increased – and welcome – attention to the wellbeing of senior lawyers and members of the judiciary over the past year or so.

Many of you – as I was – would have been saddened by the devastating deaths of Stephen Myall and Jacinta Dwyer, of the Victorian magistracy, over the past year and a half. These tragic deaths highlighted something that has been ignored for far too long – the personal toll inflicted on members of the judiciary not just by heavy workloads and emotional stress but also by attacks in the media, and by politicians.

It has not been a good couple of years for respect for the judiciary, and by extension the legal profession as a whole. In fact it has been sport for some to take a knock at judges and lawyers, to somehow imply that by upholding the law of Australia they are expressing a particular ideology. That some lawyers, by defending their clients, are ‘un-Australian’. There was a notable case of three politicians nearly being held in contempt by the Supreme Court of Victoria in 2017 – though I will keep my promise not to get too political about that.

It is wrong, it is dangerous and it is abhorrent to say such things. An independent judiciary ensures that justice is available to all, and sometimes that may mean that decisions are made which politicians do not like. That is how it should be and we should worry if it was anything but.

But members of the judiciary are easy targets – considering they cannot defend themselves publicly. And it is not new that they are picked on by politicians and some elements of the press. But there has been a notable worsening lately, and it is making both our justice system, and the people in it, ill.

It’s time for it to stop. That’s a call I issue widely – not just to politicians but to talkback hosts and the public at large. At the federal level of course, it is the responsibility of the Attorney-General to defend the judiciary. Were I fortunate enough to become the next Attorney-General – and I am certainly not taking anything for granted! – that is a duty I would carry out with pride.

It is also my duty now to welcome the incoming President of the Law Council for 2019, Arthur Moses of the NSW Bar. I expect Arthur to bring a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm to the role – in fact I’m not sure Parliament will know what has hit it!

Clearly there is an elevated role for the Law Council in an election year – in advocating on legal issues, particularly legal assistance, in the campaign, and in helping to set the tone for a new Parliament, whoever is Attorney-General after the federal election. It’s a big task for Arthur and I’m sure he will fulfil it very capably.

In closing, it’s going to be a big year next year on many fronts, and I hope all of you here find well-earned rest over the Christmas break. Politicians and lawyers together are among the worst at looking after themselves – I urge you all to break that tradition this summer!

Many thanks.