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From the president: LIV goes regional

From the president: LIV goes regional

By Tania Wolff

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Meeting lawyers in northwest Victoria was an eye-opening experience.

Towards the end of March, I joined a small LIV contingent, including CEO Adam Awty, on a three-day road trip to northwest Victoria, taking in Euroa, Shepparton, Echuca, Swan Hill, Mildura and Bendigo.

We went to meet regional lawyers and to hear how they and their clients are emerging from COVID-19.

We all had to transform the way we practised last year, with many new measures put in place that allowed us to continue to help our clients and keep courts open. The road trip gave us the opportunity to hear what worked for regional lawyers, what measures they thought should stay and what could be done to improve access to justice.

It was an eye-opening experience. For some, the hardest part about last year was being an employer, with its attendant uncertainty and anxiety, particularly before the introduction of JobKeeper. Often in small practices, staff are like family, sharing in each other’s lives, celebrating weddings and births, often over decades. In the early days of the pandemic, the prospect of having to let people go, was crushing.

Despite this, we heard time and again of the benefits of working in the country. Lifestyle was mentioned frequently; freedom from the hustle and bustle of the city; a better work-life balance. 

Imagine, we were told, getting to work in a matter of minutes and parking easily, out the front of your office. Driving through the beautiful expanse of northwest Victoria, I could see the attraction.

There was talk of close relationships with clients, built over years, with practitioners walking beside their clients and supporting them through various legal issues, spanning a lifetime. A rich sense of community was conveyed, and many talked about the quality of work and early exposure to a wide range of legal issues as a regional practitioner.

It almost seems as though regional legal practice is Victoria’s best-kept secret. We heard, repeatedly, how hard it is to attract and retain young lawyers. There is demand; there are busy, viable practices where senior lawyers are seeking a succession plan, with no one to pass the baton to. 

There are other challenges faced by regional lawyers.

Some civil practices have all but collapsed due to the often inestimable delay before a matter may be heard, particularly in the lower courts. There are significant financial disincentives to pursuing some claims, with costs ballooning to fit in with the court’s schedule. It has become more expensive in some instances to pursue justice than to walk away. Clients are being encouraged to settle for less even when their legal positions are strong.

In property law practices, the inability to effect electronic transactions for water entitlements through PEXA and delays of up to two years with a response from the Land Titles Office are sources of widespread frustration.

Regional court infrastructure continues to be challenging – both its physical usefulness and digital capacities. 

This presents access to justice challenges for many clients who find it difficult to participate in online hearings.

Recently, one client was released from Ravenhall on a therapeutic order, with supports in place but with no money or transport back to Shepparton. The client reoffended and was back in custody the next day. Another client had to appear in person, as the Cobram court did not have online hearings. Limited public transport options meant that person travelled the day before, slept in a park and was then the victim of a violent assault.

There are some silver linings. To the envy of city criminal lawyers, regional lawyers are appearing in person. They are retaining close relationships with court staff and are often contacted by registrars or coordinators in advance of matters being called. However, many regional lawyers despair at the limited supports for clients. In Echuca, there are few options to help clients with addiction or mental health issues, or to address the complex challenges that often perpetuate the cycle of offending. In many regional courts, there is no CISP program to refer people on bail to supports geared to address underlying issues before a matter is finalised.

Overall, however, it seems that regional practitioners fared better than city and suburban lawyers during COVID-19 – and bounced back quicker. Many lawyers expressed their gratitude for the LIV response to the pandemic: they found the COVID-19 hub helpful and are benefitting from their new ability to engage in sections, committees, conferences and CPD online with the same ease as their city counterparts. “Don’t stop offering that”, one of the lawyers said to me.

We won’t. There is still much more to be done. ■

Tania Wolff
LIV PRESIDENT

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