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Demography: PC data to capture law's diversity

Demography: PC data to capture law's diversity

By Carolyn Ford

Practising Certificate 


Practising certificate renewal forms for 2020–21 include new questions about ethnic and cultural identity.

For the first time, Victorian legal practitioners are being asked questions about their ethnic and cultural background on practising certificate renewal forms for 2020–21.

The questions are: 

  • In which country were you born?
  • What is your ancestry? 
  • Are you of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin?
  • Do you speak languages other than English?

The questions, which are optional, are designed to elicit accurate data so the legal profession can understand the cultural background of its members and potentially pursue informed diversity and inclusion initiatives.

The Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner (VLSB+C) will share the de-identified data with the Law Council of Australia (LCA) and a report will be prepared. Practitioners have the option of consenting to the information being made available on the VLSB+C public register.

Lawyers in Queensland, NSW and South Australia are being asked the same or similar ethnic and cultural ancestry questions for 2020–21 by the state law associations. 

Similar questions about cultural and ethnic background were asked of all Australians in the 2016 national census.

The collection of ethnic and cultural ancestry data from solicitors across Australia has been championed by LIV president Sam Pandya. He is the first lawyer of Indian heritage to lead the organisation. A central plank of his platform for 2020 is promoting greater cultural diversity in the legal profession at all levels. He has practised law in England and Wales, where there is voluntary collection of ethnic and cultural diversity data from solicitors.

“I am passionate about advancing cultural diversity within the legal profession so that it better reflects the Australian community in which we live,” Mr Pandya says.

He has been working with the LCA equal opportunity committee for almost three years, advocating for inclusion of cultural diversity questions on all state and territory practising certificate or membership renewal forms. LCA-approval came in March 2019 and in May, it wrote to constituent bodies recommending they ask questions too.

“This was a very proud moment for me. When I received this memo, I felt emotional and was proud to see the profession taking this issue so seriously.”

In September 2019, Victorian Legal Services Commissioner Fiona McLeay gave her permission for the questions to be included in the 2020–21 practising certificate renewal cycle. 

“This is a huge step forward in understanding the cultural and ethnic demography of our profession so that we can moreeffectively work towards providing equal opportunity for all our lawyers, especially in light of the growing diversity of the Australian community,” Mr Pandya says.

“This has been a long journey for me, but so satisfying to get this far. The questions are voluntary but I encourage as many lawyers as possible to answer them so that we can see the cultural make up of our profession at a state and national level. This will help to ensure the legal profession works towards reflecting the community in which we live.”

The LIV is also considering asking the questions in membership renewal materials for those in the profession – students, trainees – who do not hold practising certificates.

Understanding the cultural and ethnic demography of the profession will help the LCA develop appropriate policies and projects to promote greater diversity within the profession. 

(There are no nationwide statistics to inform the LCA or state or territory bodies on the needs, trends or priorities of the legal profession to inform promotion of cultural diversity and inclusion).

The objective aligns with the LCA’s 2015–20 strategic plan, which is to promote, protect and defend the interests of Australian lawyers, and the LCA’s Justice Project which recognises and accepts responsibility for building on existing efforts to promote diversity within the legal profession, by seeking to increase the number of people who are culturally and linguistically diverse and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

According to the LCA, diversity is crucial to the sustainability of the legal profession, with studies showing that diversity in workplaces positively impacts performance, work quality, innovation, risk reduction and client satisfaction.

A 2016 Australian Human Rights Commission report highlighted that about 28 per cent of the population was born overseas. And 32 per cent of the population has a non-Anglo Celtic background. “Such cultural diversity is not proportionately represented within the senior leadership of our organisations,” the report said.

A 2015 Asian Australian Lawyers Association report found Asian Australians account for 3.1 per cent of partners in law firms, 1.6 per cent of barristers and 0.8 per cent of the judiciary.

“A major step in addressing under-representation in the profession is to better understand its nature and extent. I am excited and optimistic that this is a significant step forward,” Mr Pandya says. ■


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