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Regions: LIV heads west in new climate

Regions: LIV heads west in new climate

By Karin Derkley

Interviews 

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Practitioners are experiencing heavy volumes of work as a result of the economic prosperity of western Victoria despite the pandemic.

Spirits are high and business is strong in western Victoria after a year marked by COVID-19 restrictions, the LIV was told on a road trip to the region in April.

LIV president Tania Wolff, CEO Adam Awty and general manager member services Duncan Pittard visited Ballarat, Horsham, Hamilton, Warrnambool and Colac on the two-day trip.

Members said they appreciated the LIV visiting the region after what has been an extraordinary 12 months.

Warrnambool legal professionals with LIV staff
Warrnambool

Maddens Warrnambool managing partner Fiona Giblin said solicitors in the south west were “privileged and pleased to discuss issues and concerns with the president, CEO and other senior members of the LIV executive”. 

Wimmera Law Association president Patrick Smith said the visit showed the LIV cares about the challenges faced by regional lawyers.

Hamilton-based Western District Law Association president Jessica Dowdy noted that in-person discussions had helped members during what had been a difficult time. “Members enjoyed the local interactions, and the Western District Law Association looks forward to this becoming an annual event.”Ballarat and District Law Association president Toby Permezel said it was encouraging to see the LIV making real efforts to connect with regional practitioners.

Colac firm SLM Law director Meagan Compton said there was “nothing like seeing people in person and feeling like they care about your community and its issues, which is why it was great to enjoy a coffee and a chat during the LIV’s recent visit to Colac”.

Wimmera Law Association staff with LIV staff
Horsham

Lawyers told the LIV they were bouncing back from a year of COVID-19 characterised by a shift to working online. 

Mr Permezel said the year had been a difficult one for members, but a huge growth surge in Ballarat meant practitioners were “busier than ever”.

Ms Giblin said regional practitioners were experiencing heavy volumes of work as a result of the economic prosperity of rural and regional Victoria and net positive migration into the regions following COVID-19. In Horsham, Mr Smith said that after an initial quiet period at the beginning of the first lockdown as clients waited to see what the impacts of COVID-19 would be, the firm has been busier than ever. “Farmland prices have increased dramatically, and a lot of deals have been done, probably due to a couple of very good harvests. When farmers are doing well Horsham does well generally.”

In Colac, which suffered one of the biggest per capita COVID-19 outbreaks in Australia in late July and early August, Ms Compton said the business and legal community banded together and held strategic meetings and some community forums to help disseminate information effectively. “As a lawyer involved in those meetings, my firm learned so much about leadership and emergency management.”

Ms Compton said her firm was well positioned for 2021 after working closely with the community in 2020 during a stressful time. “Our region relies heavily on the farming and manufacturing industries, which are booming.”

VLA Ballarat staff with LIV staff
VLA Ballarat

At the Victoria Legal Aid office in Ballarat, the LIV heard that the office had expanded from 18 to 24 over the past year and moved into new custom designed premises in January. 

VLA deputy managing lawyer Melanie Rudolphus said the move was driven by an increase in demand for legal services in the regional city as well as a commitment from VLA to service those needs. 

COVID-19 related restrictions continue to cause disruption in court hearing dates throughout the region. Ms Giblin said delays and backlogs in the judicial system following the COVID-19 restrictions were impacting on all those involved in the criminal justice system and in family law.

VLA family lawyers reported that directions hearings were blown out to October, with actual hearings not being scheduled until 2022.

Online hearings have also created some challenges for solicitors and their clients, with WebEx bookings sometimes difficult to juggle and solicitors finding it difficult to connect via screen with clients in family law, child protection and criminal matters. 

“It can be hard to discuss issues and take instructions in more depth when you’re online,” one VLA lawyer said.

But others said they hoped digital justice could be retained beyond the pandemic, especially for shorter matters such as direction hearings, and for clients who found it difficult to come into the courts from remote locations.

In the past, clients often had to rely on infrequent public transport services, with some having to sleep rough after a court hearing for lack of accommodation or transport back home. 

Digital hearings also mean clients can be helped by solicitors and barristers from across the state. “It would be great to keep that option open, especially for child protection and family violence matters,” the LIV was told.

COVID-19 has been a leveller for regional lawyers who can now enjoy online and video conferencing access to LIV educational and networking events that had previously been confined to the CBD, Ms Compton pointed out. “Historically, we felt disengaged from our city counterparts due to distance, but COVID-19 has levelled the playing field, especially when it comes to things like webinars and online CPD activities.” 

An ongoing obstacle for regional practice, especially with business booming, is the shortage of lawyers. Older lawyers are worried about succession and are hoping that younger newly admitted lawyers will recognise the opportunities offered by regional firms.

Lawyers spoke highly of the positive aspects of their experience working in the regions, particularly the variety of work they were able to cover, the close relationships with clients and the positive work life balance.

Ms Giblin urged more professional staff to consider working in the regions “in response to both the volume and complexity of work increasing and also to facilitate succession within practices”.

As a former city practitioner himself, Mr Permezel said he would encourage all students to consider regional and rural practice. ■


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