The day lawyers reveal their human side
Lawyers. They make your skin crawl, right? Bunch of narcissistic, self-absorbed, money-hungry leeches.
And judges! They’re even worse! Sitting in their palatial offices cut off from the real world, handing out wrist-slaps and lollies to scumbags.
The legal profession. Please! An awful, uncaring bunch we can all do without, yeah? No, actually.
All right, some of them do fit the stereotype and every group has its seedy side (I’m loathe to, say, consider Glenn Beck a “journalist”). And decisions like jailing Jay William Cook, who stabbed teenager Todd Burrows to death, for just four years are mind-bogglingly unfair.
But amongst the puffed-up prosecutors, dastardly defenders and jaded judges are those prepared to tackle one of the biggest problems facing this country.
Put simply, getting justice in Australia is costly. Far too costly.
The number of ordinary people forced to defend themselves in criminal cases, or reduced to swallowing unfair treatment because they can’t afford to sue, climbs every year.
South Australia’s outgoing Chief Justice, John Doyle, has repeatedly called for reform. He dubbed litigation “a difficult and long nightmare”.
Former High Court Justice and famed “great dissenter” Michael Kirby agreed, likening the legal system to a Rolls-Royce.
“If you are in the Rolls-Royce class and can afford expensive litigation, you will get Rolls-Royce treatment,” he once said.
“But it’s a plain fact that ordinary citizens cannot afford to go to court.
“Our challenge is to come up with a system that is more accessible and cheaper.
“We must distribute the product of justice between normal citizens in a way that is effective, cheap and has no downsides.”
Their Honours were, and remain, firm believers in the concept of alternative dispute resolution (a fancy way of saying “sit around a table and hash things out”).
The problem with ADR is it still involves lawyers – and they’re the number one thing underprivileged people can’t afford.
Consider the recent Family Court case of a lady who (thanks to mandatory suppression orders) we’ll call Ms K. She was divorced by her husband in 2009, and he sued for sole custody of their kids. Ms K’s in-laws, meanwhile, forcibly evicted her from the matrimonial home.
A normal, sad story so far – except Ms K’s citizenship had yet to be finalised. Her English was poor. She lacked the savings for a court room fight and wasn’t eligible for government-subsidised legal aid.
Alternative dispute resolution was, for Ms K, no alternative at all. Thankfully, someone at the Red Cross pointed her toward pro bono.
For those of us who don’t speak Latin (or watch Law and Order), that’s a lawyer who takes on cases that don’t pay. Their time is paid for by charities and civic-minded law firms.
With counsel on her side, Ms K embarked on a two-year fight for her rights, her home and her children. In February, her story closed with a happy ending, she’s now building her new life, but there are many others who miss out.
We might not get the warm fuzzies from those people like we do Ms K. They might be petty criminals needing representation, or absentee parents trying to skimp on their payments.
But that’s not the point. True justice comes only when the rights of all are observed and that means jerks need a fair shake, too.
There are lawyers who, despite the stereotype, believe this. There are judges who can see past their wigs and into the community. And, once a year, they all go for a walk.
It’s called, rather fittingly, the Walk for Justice (there are no points, at the bar table, for creativity) and is part of National Law Week.
Professionals in Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane loop their city to raise money for “pro bono clearinghouses’’ that help people like Ms K.
All levels of the job are represented – judges and silks rub shoulders with law students – while sombre robes and gowns are chucked in favour of sneakers and trackies.
The walk is led by Ambassadors who are, more often than not, important people like Attorneys-General, Chief Justices and members of the Order of Australia.
(Sometimes they let opinionated journalists go up the front, too.)
Last year’s walk raised $34,000 nationally which, in South Australia alone, allowed for 3000 hours of free legal assistance.
All too often, lawyers and judges get a bad rap – tragically, they all too often earn that scorn through their actions and decisions.
The Walk for Justice, then, is important for three reasons.
It lets the community see the profession give back, act like human beings and help those far less fortunate than themselves.
It gets judges and lawyers into said community and forces them to focus on the needs of the real world – something that is, sadly, easy to forget inside the rarified air of a court room.
And it gives Ms K, and thousands of others in her situation, a chance to be treated fairly.
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