Over the next three weeks, I will be devoting most of my weekly message in In Brief to updating members on some of the signature projects currently being undertaken by the Bar Council. One of the great privileges of being President is the first-hand exposure I get to the dedication, dynamism and creativity of the members of Bar Council, the members of our many Associations and Committees, and the staff who work in the Bar Office.
So far, 2018 has been a busy year, with members of the Bar Council contributing in myriad ways through involvement in various working groups as well as the ordinary business of the Council. In all of our projects, we are guided by the vision in our Strategic Plan for the Victorian Bar: “independence, excellence, leadership, growth”. I do not see the pace letting up over the balance of the year.
This week, I want to tell members about an ambitious project that is well underway and will come to fruition in coming months, but which has been conducted largely under the radar to date: a comprehensive review of the Victorian Bar’s pro bono duty barrister schemes with Victoria’s courts and tribunals.
The objective of the review is to consolidate and streamline our disparate programs, with a view to relaunching a much more effective and efficient system, managed via a new online portal.
We are proud of the pro bono work done by members of the Bar. Such work is seen by most barristers as a way of putting back into the community. It is difficult to measure the value of the contribution that our members make by way of pro bono service, but we can confidently predict that it is worth the equivalent of many millions of dollars per year. It is too often unheralded, and yet it can make the most profound difference to the lives of those who are assisted.
Our members are motivated to offer their services pro bono by two broad reasons: a commitment to access to justice for those in need, and a commitment to furthering the administration of justice.
Pro bono work is, of course, no substitute for properly funded legal aid or for expecting clients with means to pay for the provision of legal services. Part of the frustration with our current schemes has been a lack of quality control and inconsistently applied eligibility criteria. The Bar Council’s review is directed at addressing these and other frustrations.
In parallel with the current review, the Bar is engaged in ongoing discussions on the appropriateness of barristers providing unpaid witness advice work for the DPP. The Bar believes that work of that kind should be properly funded and not provided on a pro bono basis.
As well as providing pro bono services via the Bar’s various duty barrister schemes, members also volunteer their time and expertise via the Pro Bono Scheme administered by JusticeConnect, and via their own informal networks of clerks, firms, colleagues, friends and community groups. The current review is not concerned with those other means by which members provide pro bono services.
Developing a better referral system
If duty barrister schemes are to be sustainable, barristers volunteering their services and time must be confident about their fair administration and integrity.
A great deal of work is currently going into negotiating new protocols between each jurisdiction that makes requests for the provision of pro bono assistance and the Bar. The aim is to have each court and tribunal adopt a rule or practice note to guide the circumstances in which requests for pro bono assistance will be made, and that will provide barristers with clear and accurate information about the nature of the commitment required and why the matter merits the provision of pro bono assistance.
Eligibility criteria may include the financial means of a party, the capacity of the party to otherwise obtain legal assistance, the nature and complexity of the proceedings, whether it is appropriate for a barrister to act for the client on a direct access basis, and whether instructing solicitors will be required.
In partnership with the Icon Agency, the Bar is developing an online Pro Bono Barrister Portal to manage and streamline requests for pro bono assistance from courts and tribunals.
Referring courts and tribunals will be able to enter requests through the portal and barristers will be able to see and accept requests. The automated system will interface with barristers’ profile information on the Vicbar website.
The aims of the portal are to achieve greater efficiency in making referrals; an increase in barrister satisfaction; an increase in the level of service to courts and to unrepresented litigants and witnesses; better record-keeping as to the type, value and volume of pro bono assistance delivered by the Bar’s members; and quicker responses to those identified as requiring independent legal assistance.
Watch this space
Further details about the progress of the review and the development of the portal will be made available in coming weeks and months.
There are many people to thank for their ongoing work on this important project. I thank Richard Wilson, Chair of the Bar’s Pro Bono and Duty Barrister Scheme Committee, and the Committee, for embracing the review and throwing themselves into the huge amount of work that is involved in negotiating protocols with courts and tribunals. I also thank Fiona Ellis, Erin Hill and Sarah Keating, who comprise the Bar Council’s working group on pro bono issues for their work liaising with Richard and his Committee and reporting back to the Bar Council. Thanks also go to the Legal Services Board, which has provided some of the funding for the development of the portal. Heartfelt thanks go to Icon Agency, which is designing the portal. Icon has partnered with the Victorian Bar in recognition of the importance of the project and its capacity to transform the lives of those clients who benefit from the pro bono work done by our members. Finally, I thank the Bar Office for all the work it is doing on the project, under the leadership of CEO, Sarah Fregon.