Supporting current and future members of the Bar
Some phenomena are spoken of as “great equalisers” because their impact transcends wealth, age, race, gender and occupation. Early in the pandemic, some touted the coronavirus as a great equaliser, due to its indiscriminately infectious nature. But we know the health impact of the pandemic has not been “shared” equally. It has also yielded some very different economic outcomes across society.
This disparity is mirrored at the Bar – while some members have been able to adapt their practices to remote working, others, especially those who are dependent on the in-person operation of the courts, have been disproportionately affected. The closure of chambers, move to virtual hearings and interruption to trials by jury have resulted in significant income fluctuations, logistical upheavals and technological frustrations.
The Bar is committed to continuing to support members through the pandemic, including through advocacy for members’ interests, an outline of which is available on the COVID page on the members’ website here. We are doing our best to catch individuals who are at risk of falling through the cracks – and this week we have reiterated that barristers experiencing particular hardship should apply to the Barristers Benevolent Association for support.
Many members are concerned about sustaining chambers during the lockdown, and BCL is continuing to provide ongoing rent relief. BCL has received more than 1,400 applications for rent relief, and has so far provided more than $1.8 million in rental support. Information about how BCL’s support has been allocated is on its website here.
I appreciate that this week’s announcement by the County Court of Victoria about deferring jury trials has been a significant blow to the Criminal Bar. The prospect of a resumption of criminal trials had been sustaining the hopes of many. I know that the feeling of solidarity for members of the Criminal Bar amongst members in other practice areas is strong. Criminal trials are perhaps the one area where the adaptive power of technology falls short of providing an acceptable workaround, and we hope that some of the options we have discussed with the Attorney-General for resuming criminal trials in a COVID-safe way might bear fruit.
Over the past week, we have been meeting with senior representatives from the Department of Justice and Community Safety and the Department of Health and Human Services to discuss the pathway out of Stage 4. We have strongly advocated allowing members to attend chambers for preparations and hearings, to be able to access childcare, and to allow onsite IT and administrative support. We have advocated that the continued operation of the courts and the justice sector generally, and in particular criminal jury trials, is fundamental to maintaining law and order in society and our community’s safety. We are not just another service industry. Our role is fundamental to the proper functioning of the state. We believe that those in the legal sector should come together to be innovative and imaginative in exploring ways to permit the justice system to function as normally as possible, whilst observing all health restrictions. We will update members on the implications for them of the government’s roadmap as they become clearer.
Strengthening the college
I’d like to thank all members who responded to the EOI for the Bar’s mentoring pilot. We had an overwhelming response and are now finalising the mentoring pairs. I am excited about the potential of this pilot to build on, and expand our culture of mentoring at a time when it is absolutely critical.
It is now the second week of the Readers’ Course, and I continue to be impressed by the enthusiasm and dedication of those preparing to join the Bar – particularly in these difficult times. We are also looking to 2021: the October Bar Entrance Exam, redesigned to be held entirely electronically, has received an unprecedented number of registrations, and we look forward to welcoming the next group of Readers in March. Registrations for the exam close 5:00pm, 25 September 2020 and more information is available here.
The importance of the rule of law – even in pandemics
Many will have seen the footage of the arrest of Ballarat woman, Zoe Buhler, accused of inciting a gathering to protest the government’s health directives. The importance of adherence to the law is especially acute in times such as the present. However, equally critical is the maintenance of public confidence that the exercise of powers of enforcement will be proportionate and consistent. A copy of our media release on the subject can be found here.
The legacy of Henry Jolson AOM QC
Finally, the Bar is proud to have sponsored the ADC-ICC Asia-Pacific Commercial Mediation Competition, awarding the Henry Jolson OAM QC Prize to the winning team from the National University of Singapore. A recording of the final is here. Henry was a highly respected member for almost 40 years and inducted as a Living Legend of the Bar in 2012. As a pioneer of mediation in Victoria, Henry’s influence on the Bar is evident today as the Bar is home to an outstanding community of those highly skilled in alternative dispute resolution.