Interview with Magistrate Pauline Wright
In celebration of the Law Council of Australia’s 90th Anniversary, the Law Council is celebrating this significant milestone by highlighting its rich history and key achievements throughout the years. As part of this campaign, the Law Council had the privilege to interview a selection of past Presidents, gaining a unique perspective on their time in the role.
Reflecting on your time as Law Council President, what were the three key policy priorities within your term?
I was honoured to serve as the President of the Law Council of Australia in 2020 of all years, when the importance of the legal profession and the justice system really shone. As Australia emerged into 2020, scorched and grieving from a summer of devastating bushfire, no one imagined that we would be thrust into the grips of the worst pandemic the world had faced in over a century. 2020 was certainly eventful and the legal profession had to manage countless issues with agility and determination.
It was both challenging and deeply satisfying to lead the Law Council of Australia that year. Finding a way for the legal system to continue to function in the face of such unprecedented upheaval was the first priority of my presidency.
I am enormously proud of the role the Law Council played in ensuring that the profession adapted nimbly to enable the essential work of the legal system to continue throughout the pandemic, despite the necessary lockdowns and restrictions, as well as getting on with the business of defending the rule of law, civil rights and freedoms, promoting access to justice and contributing to reform in important areas of the law.
Thanks to the vast pool of volunteer lawyers who make up the Law Council’s committees and Sections as well as the brilliant policy lawyers in the Secretariat. The Law Council has built an unassailable record of high-quality advocacy on important legal issues, and 2020 was no exception.
Key advocacy issues I was privileged to lead included:
- The need for a Federal Charter of Rights, including making an address to the National Press Club to launch the LCA’s refreshed policy on a federal human rights legislation.
- Developing the Law Council’s flagship National Action Plan to address sexual harassment within the legal profession.
- Making oral statements on two important human rights issues to the United Nations, one expressing concern at the extrajudicial killings of judges and lawyers in the Philippines, and the other reiterating the fundamental importance of the right to legal assistance across all settings of detention, including in the context of national security cases.
- Successfully advocating for Australian Magnitsky legislation, with global impacts in holding individuals who breach human rights to account.
- Successfully opposing the Migration Amendment (Prohibited Items) Bill, including giving evidence at the PJCIS hearing. This meant that people seeking asylum could continue to telephone their family and friends, not to mention their lawyers and doctors.
- Giving evidence at the Juukan Gorge inquiry, which has led to a commendable set of interim recommendations.
- Addressing the alarming rates of incarceration of Australian Indigenous peoples, including initiating and hosting a series of seminars featuring some of the nation’s most eminent Aboriginal intellects, as well as advocating for raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility.
- Advocating to close the justice gap for First Nations communities in Australia more broadly, including the disproportionate negative impact within those communities of the Cashless Debit Card.
What do you believe was your greatest achievement as Law Council President and why?
It is impossible for any President to take credit for the achievements of the Law Council of Australia during their tenure for a mere 12 months. The first year of the pandemic was an extraordinary year for everyone, but it was one which underlined the essential nature of the law and the justice system in Australia. The Law Council’s effective advocacy of important issues arising from the pandemic is something we can be proud of.
Ensuring due respect and a proper balance between public health and the preservation of civil liberties and rights throughout the pandemic was vital. The imperative to respond decisively to the risks posed by COVID-19 led to the use by governments across Australia of extraordinary powers, increased use of Ministerial discretion and delegated legislation and expedited legislative processes. In this context, ensuring transparency and accountability had never been more important, and the Law Council’s advocacy for a federal integrity commission took on a new and heightened profile.
The separation of powers and open public discourse about the Government’s pandemic responses were critical to safeguarding the rights of vulnerable communities in 2020. The Law Council was joined by many organisations and community voices raising concerns and making suggestions to ensure response measures were appropriate, proportionate and fair, and that they did not outlast the crisis.
The Law Council identified early on that both the pandemic – and restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the virus – were likely to have a disproportionately harsh impact on vulnerable groups whose ability to access legal and dispute resolution services was likely to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic – and published a set of Principles to mitigate these impacts and facilitate access to justice for these groups.
The Law Council can be proud of its key role in ensuring that the wheels of justice kept turning, that the profession continued to provide advice and representation to the people of Australia and that both the courts and the profession adapted to technology with agility to ensure that cases could continue to be heard even through the tightest of lock-downs. The instigation of a series of meetings between the Federal heads of jurisdiction, the Commonwealth DPP and the legal profession to discuss the available technology and ways to deal with the crisis was instrumental in this process.
Enabling the witnessing of solemn documents and execution of contracts via digital processes, as well as conferring with clients and attending courts online, were vital and of enormous benefit to the continuation of commerce and access to justice throughout the pandemic. Access to justice has been a major beneficiary of the nimble uptake of video-conferencing technology by the Australian profession and the courts which the Law Council so ably facilitated and advocated in 2020.
What was your most memorable Law Council moment and why?
One thing that is indelibly etched into my memory was my travel to Darwin and Alice Springs in early 2020, before the lockdowns hit. It was a privilege to meet with the lawyers from NAAJA, working in some difficult conditions to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people facing the justice system. In both their professional and personal lives, these lawyers – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – dedicate themselves to closing the justice gap and reconciliation.
This led me to produce, with the assistance of the Law Council, a film clip of a song I had written in 2017 as a response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart by way of parting gift, in hope for reconciliation. It’s called From the Heart.
Based on your unique perspective as a Law Council President, how has the role of the Law Council been important over the last 90 years and how is the role relevant today?
The Law Council is an extraordinary organisation, made up as it is of representatives of all the peak bodies of the associations of barristers and solicitors across Australia and of each of its sections. Each member of the Council is a leader in their own right, being elected or appointed by their body to represent them and advocate for legal policy at the national level.
The Law Council has proven over the past 90 years that when harnessed and led with wisdom and vision, it can influence the development of the law and its administration across Australia in important and lasting ways. This has been for the benefit of the legal profession, the judicature and the people of our nation.
With the advent of technology and artificial intelligence, the practice of law is likely to change significantly during the professional careers of the young lawyers of today.
To address this, the legal profession will need to be involved right now to harness the benefits and minimise the risks of the radical and inevitable change we are witnessing. The Law Council can take a leadership role in encouraging the profession, rather than shying away from technology, to be part of the development of the technological solutions and embrace the opportunities that technology will undoubtedly provide.
The Law Council has always maintained that our duties to our clients are fundamental to our profession. No matter what advances in technology may arise and no matter what new work practices may emerge, this will remain true. Against this technological revolution, the leadership of the Law Council will be vital in providing guidance to the profession in the continual reassessment of the needs and best interests of our clients and the communities it serves.
Happy 90th birthday to the Law Council of Australia and many happy returns.
Magistrate Pauline Wright