Interview with the Hon Alex Chernov AC KC
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.
The first interview of the series, the Law Council had the honour to interview the Hon Alex Chernov AC QC, who served as President in 1990–1991. During his term, Mr Chernov was responsible for initiating and implementing the purchase of the Law Council’s secretariat building on 19 Torrens Street in Canberra.
The Law Council of Australia has requested me (as its former President – 1990,1991) to provide it with my views on the following matters:
- Key policy priorities during my term of Office
- Greatest achievements as President (and why)
- My most memorable Law Council moment
- How has the role of the Law Council been important over the last 90 years and how it is relevant today
At the outset, I congratulate the Law Council on achieving the milestone of 90 years since its creation and acknowledge that this has occurred notwithstanding the difficulties its leaders faced not only at the beginning of its formation but also during many periods of its existence. In that context I congratulate the former Presidents, constituent bodies and hardworking staff. As to the provision of my views on the topics sought, I am conscious that my term was completed over 30 years ago and that recollections (including mine) slip during such a long period. With this caveat, I turn to my comments on the matters identified above.
Key policy priorities
One such policy priority was to accommodate the disparity in voting powers between members of the Law Council and all this entailed. Membership of the Law Council was then made up of State bodies that essentially controlled the legal profession in their respective jurisdictions, such as the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV), State Law Societies and the independent State Bars. Each such body paid what was effectively a capitation fee to the Law Council. Such fee was based essentially on the number of members of each constituent body.
Thus, for example, the Law Society of New South Wales (NSW), which had the greatest membership of solicitor members, paid the greatest amount to the Law Council by way of capitation fees. Consequently, its voting rights on the Council reflected this thereby giving it a powerful voice on the Council (which caused friction). It follows that the smaller Law Societies had smaller voting rights, and the same applied to the independent State Bars which were also members of the Law Council but had relatively fewer members. In a sense, the dominance of the NSW body in this respect caused tension between members.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Bars felt dissatisfied with their relatively small voice on the Council, feeling deprived of a meaningful say in its affairs. This feeling of frustration lead to the Bars of Victoria (of which I was then President) and that of NSW to give notice that they proposed to leave the Law Council. It was a tumultuous time for the body in this regard.
Eventually, a compromise was worked out which effectively gave the Bars a stronger voting right on the governing body of the Law Council. This resulted in the two major Bars “returning” to the Law Council and, from my recollection, there was a much more harmonious and productive atmosphere at its meetings. I think that this resulted in strengthening the voice of the Law Council in matters with which it was established to deal, such as representing the whole of the Australia legal professions on national and international issues and in helping to shape the Australian legal profession.
Another Law Council policy that created some division amongst members concerned the establishment of a permanent home for the Law Council in Canberra. Not all members, however, supported such a move. In part this was reflective of the Law Council having limited funds, but it also reflected the opposition by some of the larger Law Societies to establishing a fixed home for the Law Council in Canberra. Some felt this might be the “thin edge of the wedge” for a (unjustifiably) perceived concern for a federal takeover.
Eventually the decision was made to proceed with such a building. In the result I become effectively a long distance Clerk of Works for the project for almost a year. This called for weekly meetings, mostly by telephone, about many of the more contentious decisions that had to be made in relation to this development.
In this context, one cannot overstate the critical and positive role played in this project by the then Secretary General of the Law Council, Peter Levy, and his effective deputy, Barry Virtue.
Eventually, the building was finished and the Law Council gained a permanent home in Canberra (I think it was in Torrens Avenue) where it carried on its affairs for many years. Unsurprisingly, given the great expansion of the Law Council business over the years, it outgrew those premises and had to relocate, importantly, still in Canberra.
Yet another important policy priority that then occupied the time of the Law Council was how best to balance the demands of the legal profession for the establishment of Sections that were concerned mainly with dealing with specialised areas of the law such as Family Law, Taxation, Corporations and so on. This caused concern amongst some members of the Law Council who (unjustifiably) were concerned that the Sections would effectively replace the Law Council, if not wholly, then at least as chief spokesperson for particular areas of the law. Despite such concerns, the growth and importance of Sections were supported by the majority of the Law Council and (after my time) the Sections continued to provide significant input into the development of various areas of the law. I think this enhanced the ability of the Law Council to further its reach to the benefit of the Australian profession and community.
It is inappropriate, I think, for me to speak in terms of “my achievements” at the Law Council as has been requested. The reality is that such progress as was made by the Law Council during my time occurred due to the hardworking efforts of my predecessors and many of its members and its hardworking staff led by Peter Levy.
Probably the greatest achievements of the Law Council during my period there and one that entrenched it as a representative of the Australian legal profession and virtually secured its future, was the creation of its permanent home in Canberra, to which reference has already been made.
Yet another satisfying event (from my perspective) was the accommodation that was reached by Law Council members to ensure that our independent Bars had the opportunity to play a meaningful role in the governance of the Law Council.
Most memorable Law Council moments
Putting aside the importance of establishing a permanent home for the Law Council in Canberra, perhaps its most memorable work was developing (I think for the first time) a closer relationship with our counterparts in India, Malaysia and, to a lesser extent, Singapore. At the same time the Law Council maintained a meaningful relationship with governing legal bodies in the United States and Canada (as well as the UK). I sensed that our relationship with the Canadian Bar Association was particularly close, as was reflected in its invitation to me as President to attend and participate in its centenary celebrations in London in Westminster Abbey.
The expanding of our relationship with counterparts in Asia was achieved primarily through personal contact with leaders of their legal profession. For example, Law Council formed a close working relationship with leaders such as the late Anil Divan and K.K. Venugopal (who later became India’s Attorney General). Much the same pertains to establishing a working relationship with Malaysia’s legal profession through its then dynamic leader Param Cumaraswami (who later became a UN rapporteur on Human Rights and judicial independence).
I mention as an aside that I believe that it was during my time as President that I became a member of the Executive, and later Vice President of LAWASIA.
Importance of the Law Council during its 90 years
In my assessment, the rise in the impact and importance of the Law Council from its difficult and slow beginnings in 1933 to the present day have been remarkable. It is highly unlikely that its founders (who had to face opposition from vested interests in some of the Law Societies) could have foreseen the impact that the Law Council had over the next 90 years in the development of legal issues of national importance.
It has been plain for some time that the Federal government has been reluctant to speak to State bodies on national legal issues such as Family Law, Adoption, Intellectual Property and so on. Without the participation of the Law Council the Federal government was unlikely to have gained the benefit of advice or guidance on those topics from individual law bodies. And this relationship has been to the benefit not only of lawyers in Australia but also to the general community. I believe that this benefit continues today as does its impact on the matters to which reference has been made.
The Hon Alex Chernov AC KC
Read biography here.