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Lawyers sick of being Labor's whipping boys

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The Australian government’s pending submarine project has garnered much interest of late both federally and at a state level. The state interest is principally about the potential for the creation of South Australian jobs, although security is a major second plank in the Federal Government’s consideration of the project. If the project build is to occur in South Australia we are told that as many as 5000 jobs may be created.

The other big jobs story of late in South Australia is the imminent closure of Holden. The direct job losses from the closure of the Elizabeth plant are said to be 1600 although with the closure of any industrial operation there are also downstream losses.

In South Australia we have almost 2500 practicing lawyers. Lawyers cannot work alone and, like other industries, SA’s law firms employ personal and administrative assistants, clerks and managers. Most firms have many more non-lawyers in administrative and managerial positions than they do lawyers. There is no authoritative survey of how many people work in law firms in South Australia but I would conservatively estimate it at many thousands, enough to likely dwarf the much-touted submarine project, and certainly more than the number of jobs to be lost at Holden.

There are also the many jobs necessitated by the existence of the legal profession, for example, those in the courts, and the many providers to firms from IT to stationary. A great deal of work is spun out of firms going to the medical profession, accountants and many other experts who may have a role to play in providing expert opinions to litigants and the courts.

In my firm, five equity partners employ more than 100 people, each one reliant on their income to pay mortgages, and provide for and educate their families.

The legal profession is a relative heavyweight when it comes to its contribution to the South Australian economy. However, if you pick up a newspaper or listen to a news bulletin you wouldn’t think so.

Particular members of our State Government have been relentless in their characterisation of the profession as self-interested and greedy, without any consideration for our wider contribution to the state. These attacks have been a thinly-veiled attempt to deceive the South Australian public about the true and valuable nature of the legal profession as a defender of citizens’ rights but also as an important employer in our state and contributor to the state economy.

There is no similar attack on the integrity of the medical profession, members of which both earn more than lawyers and cost the public an infinitely greater sum from our annual state budget. While a lawyer who acts for an injured person in a damages claim is accused of self-interest, there is no similar allegation made against a member of the medical profession who treats the same person.

In short, the Government has admitted that our present approach to criminal justice is unsustainable. The legal profession had it right all along, but will we ever receive an apology?

My remarks should not be interpreted as a critique of the medical profession whose members I admire greatly, but it is a criticism of the often shallow and thoughtless rhetoric that falls from the lips of some of those in government.

The legal profession is a powerful lobby group and, despite of the attitudes of some in government, is able to influence public debate and public opinion. Members of the legal profession know that we have not been well served by either iteration of our current government.

The integrity of our defence counsel has been repeatedly questioned in a quite improper and inappropriate way, when all they are doing is their job and protecting a principle enshrined in the very tenets of our democracy – that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

Our reputations were attacked when we sought to defend the removal of rights to compensation for a person who is injured in a motor vehicle accident or injured in the workplace. As the enormity of what has been lost in compensation benefits percolates into community consciousness, the rightness of the profession’s stance will be recognised. In the meantime we have endured the indignity of government ministers attacking our personal motivations for speaking up.

Our members are expected to work in out of date public facilities such as our ancient court rooms and jails, and criticised when we raise our concerns. There is no end in sight of the broken promises regarding new courts and new jails.

And for the past 13 years we have been lampooned by members of government as senior as our former Premier and former Deputy Premier for saying our government’s approach to ‘law and order’ was badly thought through and largely wrong. With a prison population rising 10 per cent annually, our government has finally acknowledged that its approach was miscalculated and that we are imprisoning people who don’t require incarceration. In short, the Government has admitted that our present approach to criminal justice is unsustainable. The legal profession had it right all along, but will we ever receive an apology?

One would think that for an industry that contributes to the fabric of our community in thought leadership, and in a significant way to our state economy, that our State Government would be less eager to demonise our profession. There are some exceptions, such as the Deputy Premier and Attorney-General John Rau, who continues to have the respect of the legal profession, however at times it seems that this government has lost its democratic compass on the importance of the separation of powers.

Let’s remind ourselves that the parliament is only one part of our institution of governance and that the legal profession, which feeds the judicial arm of government, is the bastion against the potential hubris of the houses of parliament, as well as being a great contributor to the state’s bottom line.

The legal profession is sick of being the whipping boy. We are hard-working contributors to the state of South Australia who happen to be well-placed to call out the government when we see injustices being visited on the community.

We are in the perfect position to inform the public about whether a government of any political persuasion respects the legal profession and supports the rule of law. At present our government has a less than perfect score on its report card.

Morry Bailes is managing partner at Tindall Gask Bentley Lawyers, Member of the Executive of the Law Council of Australia and immediate past President of the Law Society of SA. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.

His column appears every second Thursday.

Disclosure: Morry Bailes is a member of the Liberal Party.

 

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