AGS lawyers have a long tradition of using their professional skills to serve the public interest, both through their work across government and in supporting community interests though pro bono work – it is part of AGS's culture. In a conference paper, the former CEO of the Australian Pro Bono Centre, John Corker, described AGS as one of the legal agencies 'leading government lawyers in developing this [pro bono] culture'.
AGS's outstanding pro bono contribution was recognised when it received the Lawyers Weekly Australian Law Pro Bono Award in August 2019.
AGS's dedication to pro bono was previously recognised at the 2014 ACLA in-house lawyers' awards where it won the Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility Award – See article in the Australian Pro Bono Centre's National Pro Bono News Issue 94 (December 2014).
Update on AGS's pro bono program
See Geetha Nair, National Manager of AGS Pro Bono Services, talk about the program and then watch Robyn Ayers, Executive Director of the Arts Law Centre of Australia, talk about how it impacts their mission.
We have actively encouraged AGS lawyers to undertake pro bono work in their own capacity since 2002, and we began investing in AGS pro bono activities in 2006. In November 2008, we signed up to the Australian Pro Bono Centre's Aspirational Target. Since then, AGS has undertaken pro bono work valued at more than $20 million with lawyers from all of our 3 practice areas being involved. Employees who are not lawyers, for example, our librarians, legal support staff and marketing team, have also been able to contribute to the program.
AGS recognises the pivotal role pro bono assistance plays in increasing access to justice and, with this in mind, has continually increased the expected target hours each of its lawyers are to undertake on a pro bono basis.
Access to justice for the disadvantaged
Our pro bono projects support organisations that make justice accessible to disadvantaged people by:
- placing lawyers with public interest clearing houses, community legal centres and not-for-profit organisations, for example, the Consumer Action Law Centre (Victoria), Justice Connect, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (NSW), JusticeNet (SA), the Employment Law Centre (WA), Canberra Community Law Centre, Street Law (ACT), the Consumer Credit Legal Services (WA), the Disability Discrimination Legal Service (Victoria), the Consumer Law Centre (ACT), the Arts Law Centre of Australia (NSW), Law Access Ltd (WA), and the Tasmanian Pro Bono Referral Scheme. We also assisted the Darwin Community Legal Service (DCLS) set up a dedicated Credit and Debt Legal Service whom we supported with the placement of our lawyers on a pro bono basis.
- assisting public interest clearing houses, community legal centres and not-for-profit organisations with drafting and delivery of legal community education. The community and non-profit legal sector play a vital role in ensuring access to free and independent legal representation for a wide range of the Australian public. In doing so, they often provide important advocacy services to people on low incomes and those with special needs. Training in the sector is crucial to service delivery and AGS is proud to be able to support these organisations with such training. For example, we worked in partnership with the Canberra Community Law and the Darwin Community Legal Service drafting fact sheets on various issues relevant to their clients, such as on tenancy issues, particularly for those in public housing. We also assisted the Aboriginal Legal Services ACT/NSW [ALS] with a draft handbook directed at raising awareness of Indigenous youth of their rights and assisted Justice Connect by drafting fact sheets dealing with bankruptcy and employment issues to be used as part of the Self Represented Litigants Program.
- contributing to law reform and policy reviews on issues affecting low-income or disadvantaged members of the community or on issues of public interest.
- providing general pro bono legal assistance to non-profit and charitable organisations, for example, UN Women National Committee of Australia, drafting template agreements or providing general commercial advice thus allowing those organisations to use their resources towards their community and charitable work.
AGS also has a strong focus on Indigenous organisations and matters in our pro bono work. This is part of our Reconciliation Action Plan. AGS is a panel member of the LawHelp pro bono referral scheme which we helped establish with the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations. LawHelp assesses applications for pro bono assistance by not-for-profit corporations registered under the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006. AGS has also been involved in many of the matters referred through the LawHelp scheme, providing pro bono legal assistance in commercial transactions and employment-related advice.
As noted, we support organisations such as DCLS and the ALS whose focus is on the Indigenous community. Our placements with Arts Law of Australia has also included involvement in the Artist in Black Program which focusses on assisting indigenous artists.
We provide regular training on a range of issues in Port Moresby to Papua New Guinea government lawyers working in the Department of Justice and Attorney-General. Feedback from the Secretary of the Ministry of Justice and the Attorney-General, describes the quality of our training as 'outstanding'. We also provide training in Honiara and Port Vila to government officers from the law and justice sectors in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
We have collaborated with Bridges Across Borders South East Asia Community Legal Education Initiative Australia [BABSEA] which is an Australian registered non-profit organisation established to further strengthen legal education and access-to-justice initiatives between Australia and the Southeast/South Asia region. We have written, and delivered in Vietnam, a number of training modules covering the topics of pro bono work and professional responsibility by lawyers.
How it works
AGS can only undertake pro bono work that involves acting for a person or body for whom AGS can act in accordance with its functions and powers as provided for under its enabling legislation, the Judiciary Act 1903. AGS does not undertake pro bono work in any matter against a Commonwealth agency or where there is an unacceptable potential for conflict of interest for government clients. Despite these limitations, we have developed an extensive pro bono program, which covers a diverse range of clients all across Australia and also internationally.
We give our pro bono work the same care and attention as our fee-earning work. Our pro bono initiatives reflect careful judgment in managing our obligation to serve the Government, and our desire to make a substantial and sustainable contribution to improving access to justice. Our pro bono work is subject to AGS's National Professional Standards and APS Code of Conduct policies.
Our dedicated National Pro Bono Manager reports directly to the Australian Government Solicitor and Chief Operating Officer.
The National Pro Bono Manager is an experienced AGS senior executive lawyer who takes responsibility for the development and ongoing operation of the program, ensures application of any lessons learned and quality assurance processes, and manages its performance against targets as well as any risks.
We have also participated in discussions and stakeholder meetings with the broader pro bono community organised by the Australian Pro Bono Centre and contributed to their publications. See 'Pro Bono Legal Work - A Guide for Government Lawyers'.
The quality and value of our pro bono work has been recognised in several awards including the Lawyers Weekly Australian Law Pro bono Award in August 2019, the ACLA Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility Award in 2014 and the Arts Law Award in 2018. Were were also finalists in several awards, including a finalist with the Arts Law Centre for the Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales Pro Bono Partnership Award 2012. We were also selected as 1 of 3 finalists in the Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility category at the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association awards for 2011 and a finalist in the Burgess Paluch Pro Bono Award – one of the categories of awards presented by the Australian Lawyers Weekly.
Please contact Geetha to find out more about our pro bono program or to apply for pro bono assistance.
AGS supports the efforts of the Australian Pro Bono Centre and the Australian Law Students Association to provide information to law students and young lawyers about the opportunities to be involved in furthering social justice throughout their legal career.
Extract from the Attorney-General's Department Annual Report 2018–19:
Pro bono work
The pro bono program continues to grow and promotes a just and secure society for Australia and its neighbours in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Pro bono projects are available to organisations that make justice accessible to low-income or disadvantaged people and have a community impact. There is a strong focus on Indigenous organisations and matters. We also provide assistance to organisations that help young people facing legal difficulties, those with disability, those who are in financial difficulty, tenants, people experiencing domestic violence and those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. This year, AGS expanded its assistance in the Pacific region by offering legal training to government lawyers in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. In total, AGS lawyers provided 9342 hours of pro bono work.