An address from Australia’s First Law Officer was the highlight of the second and final day of the National Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre today.
Commonwealth Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus KC received a warm welcome at the centre’s Boulevard Room, which was packed with legal stakeholders eager to hear insights from the government’s principal legal advisor.
Mr Dreyfus, who spoke at the same conference a decade ago, praised the efforts of the pro bono sector in working towards the goal of a fair, affordable and accessible justice system for all.
“While anyone may find themselves in contact with the legal system for a variety of reasons, research has constantly demonstrated that legal need is far from evenly distributed in society,” he said.
“We all know that specific groups within our community experience significant challenges when trying to access service to resolve legal issues.
“Individuals facing various forms of disadvantage, such as poor health, low income, limited literacy and education are especially vulnerable.
“The intersection of poverty and legal issues creates a cycle that perpetuates social exclusion and deepening of inequalities.
“We know that financial constraints are a significant barrier to many people receiving legal assistance or representation, impeding their ability to access vital resources and opportunities to resolve their legal issues quickly and effectively.”
Mr Dreyfus said barriers to justice had broader societal implications.
“When people cannot access justice, their ability to assert their rights, protect their interests, and advocate for themselves is compromised, undermining trust in the legal system and eroding the rule of law,” he said.
Mr Dreyfus said the priority was to remove the barriers to justice for all people, regardless of their socio-economic status, and those delivering legal assistance and pro bono services played a central role in this.
“Your services help to bridge the gap for individuals who cannot afford legal representation, enabling them to receive the support they need to navigate the complexities of the legal system,” he said.
“By providing free or low-cost assistance, your services help to reduce financial barriers and ensure justice is not limited only to those who can afford it.
“The vital work that this sector does is not lost on me.”
Mr Dreyfus echoed the opening remarks of Australian Pro Bono Centre CEO Gabriela Christian-Hare, who congratulated those gathered for their work to grow the sector.
“Australia comes only after the US in the priority given by the private profession to pro bono legal work,” Ms Christian-Hare said.
“Leadership, especially the thought leadership, in the pro bono legal sector here in Australia, has and continues to inspire and inform growth of the sector in a range of jurisdictions across the world,” she said.
“This is something we should feel proud of.”
In July 2020, the Australian Pro Bono Centre created the National Pro Bono Target of at least 35 hours of pro bono legal services per lawyer per year, or 20 hours for in-house corporate and government lawyers.
Ms Christian-Hare said there were close to 300 target signatories, with almost a third of those in the profession working for a signatory organisation.
The conference, co-hosted by Queensland Law Society, Australian Pro Bono Centre and Law Council of Australia, has heard from a variety of legal stakeholders from across the country, including legal professionals, judges, government law officers and academics.
The first day’s proceedings wrapped up with a conference dinner at the Queensland Art Gallery, with Professor Peter Greste, of Macquarie University, delivering the keynote address.