AGS Pro Bono Services
AGS's commitment to pro bono legal services around Australia has continued to grow, since our signing up to the Australian Pro Bono Centre's Aspirational Target in November 2008. Our commitment to undertake pro bono legal work is also reflected in our Reconciliation Action Plan.
National Manager Pro Bono Services
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, our commercial considerations and our desire to make a substantial and sustainable contribution to improving access to justice.
The quality and value of our pro bono work was recognised when we won the Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility Award for our 2013–14 pro bono program at the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association Lawyer of the Year Awards in 2014. AGS was also a finalist with the Arts Law Centre of Australia for the 2012 Pro Bono Partnership Award, presented by the Law and Justice Foundation NSW.
Our National Manager of Pro Bono Services, Geetha Nair, was 1 of 6 finalists in the Burgess Paluch Pro Bono Award, one of the awards presented by the Australian Lawyers Weekly. Geetha also won the 2015 Arts Law Award from the Arts Law Centre of Australia for the contribution that she and AGS made in assisting Arts Law Centre clients.
Most recently, in May 2017, Senior Executive Lawyer Rachel Chua of AGS Commercial received the Arts Law Pro Bono Award from the Hon Justice Margaret Beazley AO, President of the Arts Law Centre of Australia, in recognition of her significant contribution in undertaking intellectual property work for Arts Law clients.
AGS lawyers – Kate Brophy, Roxanne Lorenz, Holly Ritson and Rachel Chua at the Arts Law Pro Bono Award 2017
It's what we do
AGS's support for access to justice through the pro bono program is a natural consequence of its acknowledgment of the professional responsibility lawyers owe to the community. We also recognise the potential of a successful pro bono program to enhance AGS's attractiveness as an employer, to increase job satisfaction and retention rates, and to develop the skills and confidence of our lawyers.
Our pro bono program is focused on enhancing access to justice for disadvantaged people and disadvantaged communities, including legal training in Australia and Asia–Pacific countries.
The main areas of AGS pro bono work are:
- providing lawyers on secondment with public interest clearing houses, community legal centres or other non-profit organisations
- legal work for non-profit organisations in areas of law which are unlikely to give rise to disputes between our pro bono client and Commonwealth government agencies, such as commercial and employment law, and law reform on issues of public interest
- legal training or developing fact sheets for community legal centres and other non-profit organisations on issues affecting disadvantaged communities
- projects involving legal advice to, assistance to, or training for, overseas organisations and governments.
The program is an extension of our work in supporting the public interest, and provides opportunities for our lawyers to be engaged in work that supports the broader community, and meets our commitment to supporting those in need.
What makes us unique
AGS's pro bono program is of a different nature to programs run by private law firms. 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 – for example, where the services relate to Commonwealth law or to activities in the Territories, or are connected with foreign governments or overseas matters, or where the Commonwealth has power to make laws in relation to the subject matter of the pro bono services.
As a government entity and being part of the Commonwealth, 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.
The Director of the National Pro Bono Resource Centre, John Corker, described AGS as 'leading government lawyers in developing this [pro bono] culture'. AGS's pro bono policy has been posted to the Centre's website, at the request of Mr Corker, as an example to facilitate the development of similar policies by government agencies.
OUR NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL COMMITMENT
We undertake a range of projects and participate in programs nationally and internationally, drawing on the skills and interests of our lawyers in each office.
Our pro bono initiatives include placing lawyers with public interest clearing houses, community legal centres and not-for-profit organisations. These secondments, some of which have been running for over 5 years, have been with organisations all over Australia and have included JusticeConnect, the Darwin Community Legal Service, the Consumer Law Action Centre (VIC), the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (NSW), LawRight (formerly the QLD Public Interest Clearing House), JusticeNet (SA), the Disability Discrimination Legal Service (VIC), the Consumer Law Centre of the ACT, the Financial Rights Centre (NSW); the Welfare Rights and Legal Centre (ACT), Street Law (ACT), the Women's Legal Centre (ACT), the Arts Law Centre of Australia, the Pro Bono Clearing House (TAS), Law Access (WA), the Employment Law Centre of WA Incorporated, Consumer Credit Legal Services (WA); the Tenants Union (ACT); Advocacy for Inclusion; and the Australia Pro Bono Centre.
Our placements have provided an added 'hands-on' resource to these organisations, which operate with a limited number of lawyers and resource constraints. The pro bono assistance provided by AGS through these placements has in turn facilitated increased access to justice for some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised members of the community, as added cases are able to be managed, and advice and educational resources are made available to the community.
Morris Averill, Donna Robinson and Delwyn Everard
In early 2011, AGS partnered with the Darwin Community Legal Service to establish the Credit and Debt Legal Service, NT's only specialist provider of free legal advice on credit and debt issues. AGS has until recently continued to assist with management and delivery of this service with the placement of its lawyers with the service. The service provides specialist legal advice for people affected by debt or credit problems, including debt-recovery, mortgages and repossessions, loans or credit cards, unsecured loans and credit reporting, in recognition of the social problems arising out of credit and debt matters.
In 2010, AGS helped establish Street Law, an outreach legal service in the ACT for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Street Law provides free legal advice, representation, education and referral to some of Canberra's most vulnerable and disenfranchised persons. AGS continues to support the program by providing graduate lawyers on a regular basis to work with the service through community-based centres.
An example of the impact of our assistance is our work with Law Access WA, who administer the Law Access Pro Bono Scheme. The Scheme is a 'last resort' mechanism for those in the community who are unable to obtain assistance through other avenues such as Legal Aid and community legal centres. In 2012, Geetha Nair approached Law Access to discuss possible pro bono assistance (noting that no other law firm had, at that time, secondees assisting the Scheme), as a result of which placement arrangements were entered into and have continued since then.
We have had a long-standing relationship with the Arts Law Centre of Australia, a national community legal centre that provides legal assistance to Australian artists and arts organisations across all art forms. Its specialised Artists in Black program delivers targeted legal service to Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander artists nationally. Our lawyers who have been placed with Arts Law have worked on a range of issues which also covered the Artists in Black program. One of our lawyers, Donna Robinson, travelled to Central Australia with lawyers from Arts Law to assist in their wills project. This is a project under which Arts Law drafts wills for Indigenous visual artists in remote and regional areas of Australia.
One of our Sydney-based lawyers, Roxanne Lorenz, has been doing a full-time placement with Arts Law since November 2016.
"Arts Law is the national community legal centre providing advice to artists and arts organisations, including musicians, visual artists, authors, game developers and filmmakers. Clients commonly seek advice to protect their intellectual property interests, minimise risk and negotiate commercial arrangements.
With only a small team (around 5 full-time equivalent lawyers and a few administrative staff) at Arts Law, the addition of a full-time lawyer through the AGS pro bono secondment program has had a huge impact on the delivery of their services.
It is very fulfilling to assist individuals and organisations that otherwise may not have access to legal advice. I am fortunate to provide legal and commercial advice to clients who represent a diverse cross-section of the community, both culturally and in terms of the legal issues they present. It is incredibly enriching and rewarding work."
Solicitor, Arts Law
We have 2 other Sydney-based lawyers who have been undertaking secondments on a full-time basis – Julianne Tiglao at the Australian Pro Bono Centre and Danielle Hobday at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
"I have worked on a variety of tasks at the Australian Pro Bono Centre, ranging from project work to legal research. I assisted in the preparation of a submission to the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs Inquiry into a better family law system to support and protect those affected by family violence, and a submission to the Law Council of Australia's Justice Project.
I also conducted legal research on a wide range of topics, such as government provisions regarding pro bono in tender arrangements for legal services in the Commonwealth, Victorian, New South Wales and South Australian governments; social enterprises in the Australian and international context; and the pro bono efforts of various law firms and organisations.
In addition to policy and project work, I also coordinated and supervised UNSW law student interns at the Centre and assisted in administering the Centre's National Professional Indemnity Insurance Scheme.
By being directly involved in the Centre's project and research work, I developed stronger written and oral communication skills, and further developed my legal research skills.
Working at the Centre has also provided me with a deeper insight into the vast network of pro bono partnerships across Australia and the impact their pro bono legal work has on improving access to justice, particularly for marginalised and/or socially disadvantaged people."
Policy and Project Officer, Australian Pro Bono Centre
"My pro bono work has been divided between the Indigenous Justice Project and the Homeless Persons' Legal Service. In the Indigenous Justice Project, I work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have encountered issues with the NSW Police or policing. I have also been working on a racial discrimination and vilification matter for a group of Aboriginal women.
My practice within the Homeless Persons Legal Service includes a range of community partnerships and engaging with homeless people mainly within the Sydney area. This includes, but is not limited to, dealing with fines, investigating complaints against police and/or assisting people to make complaints.
Pro bono work is invaluable to non-profit community legal centres who assist the most vulnerable people within our society. I have learnt a lot from my time at PIAC, specifically how hard it is for people to navigate the system once they fall victim to living on the fringes of society. Working within this environment has allowed me to develop my skills as a solicitor, especially in terms of dealing with vulnerable and mentally ill clients, which is a less common experience in a corporate/government setting."
Solicitor, Public Interest Advocacy Centre Ltd
We have a well-established relationship with the Employment Law Centre in WA and assist with our lawyers filling in a much-needed gap where demand for services is high but there are limited resources.
"I work at the Employment Law Centre of WA (ELC) 1 day a fortnight. Along with ELC's small group of lawyers, paralegals and volunteers, I provide advice, in person and over its advice line, to WA employees in the areas of unfair dismissal, adverse action, unlawful termination, underpayment of entitlements, breach of contract, bullying, equal opportunity and occupational safety and health. ELC provides advice relating to both the State and Federal employment laws.
During my time at ELC I have learnt how difficult and overwhelming it can be for vulnerable employees to understand and navigate through the sometimes complex legal procedures in the employment law sphere. I have also seen how some people are badly treated by their employers and the difficulties they face in seeking justified remedies for their circumstances. The experience has allowed me to develop skills in delivering legal services to non-legal clients."
Solene Yik Long
"I have been at Consumer Credit Legal Service WA (CCLSWA) for 4 years and attend 1 day a week. CCLSWA provides free legal advice and representation to consumers in WA in the areas of credit, banking and finance: https://cclswa.org.au.
"I have learnt that there are a lot of consumers out there who don't know their rights and CCLSWA provides an invaluable service in educating consumers of their rights, including providing options for redress if appropriate, so that banks, credit companies, retailers etc do not unfairly take advantage of those consumers to their detriment. I do a variety of work – for example, research, drafting/settling letters to regulators and supervising the volunteers. It has helped my professional development as I am interacting with and supervising different paralegals and volunteers so I am learning different ways to manage different personalities; I am improving my letter writing and research skills; and I am also getting exposure to different areas of law. It has helped CCLSWA as they are a not-for-profit organisation and rely heavily on volunteers to do the bulk of their work."
"I attend at the office of the Consumer Action Law Centre (CALC) in Melbourne a few times each week to assist with property and commercial law aspects and also more general research in connection with the various projects it is involved with.
I have learnt how law reform is driven by organisations such as CALC. My knowledge of consumer protection regimes and legislation has increased, and my understanding of how legal vehicles can be exploited has also been expanded. The skillset I brought to the various projects was very valuable to this client, as their resident lawyers have different strengths.
Publication of a report relating to vendor terms contracts was a rewarding moment. I had been a significant contributor to the legal analysis which made its way into that report for more than a year."
All our graduates are required to do pro bono secondments as part of their graduate year with AGS. This is to ensure that our lawyers are instilled, from the start of their career, with a sense of the need to undertake such work. It is clear from the comments below from our graduates, that many regard their pro bono secondment as a beneficial experience.
"I thoroughly enjoyed my pro bono placement [at the Financial Rights Centre, NSW]. It was great working with a really varied group of people and doing some interesting work that had a direct impact on people."
"I completed my pro bono placement at Disability Discrimination Legal Service (DDLS) in Melbourne.
I found the experience both rewarding and challenging.
From a professional development perspective, taking calls from prospective clients provided a good opportunity to speak to clients but this was challenging as my knowledge of the relevant legislation was limited. Developing good relationships with the staff at DDLS was particularly rewarding."
"I really enjoyed my pro bono experience [with Consumer Action Law Centre (CALC), VIC]. The tasks I worked on were interesting and diverse. I found the people who work at CALC to be talented, passionate and supportive."
"I am finding the pro bono placement really beneficial from both a professional perspective and also for the contribution I am able to make to Consumer Credit Legal Service WA's (CCLSWA) clients. The staff at CCLSWA are supportive and I find the client contact particularly beneficial. It has been a good complement to my work at AGS and I am grateful for the opportunity to use my skills to help disadvantaged individuals."
Legal advice/work for not-for-profit/charitable organisations
AGS offers a range of pro bono legal services to not-for-profit organisations and charitable organisations in areas that harmonise with our role as lawyers to government, such as commercial, governance and privacy advice, and drafting of employment contracts. This ensures that the resources of these organisations can be freed up and be better directed to delivering their charitable and community objectives in helping those who are disadvantaged. Organisations AGS has assisted and continues to assist include UN Women Australia, CARE Australia, ChildFund Australia, Suicide Prevention Australia, the Fred Hollows Foundation, Hear For You (which specialises in services for youth with a hearing impairment) and Project Independence.
Tony Beal, Deputy General Counsel, AGS Commercial, who has undertaken significant commercial work for UN Women and the Fred Hollows Foundation, shared the following insights:
"Helping Fred Hollows has allowed me to get a full understanding of the complexity of arrangements and challenges in the many steps between receiving a donation and the final step of someone having their sight restored in a remote location. In the process I have learnt a lot about international law, drafting contractual arrangements that are designed to apply across many jurisdictions and translating the requirements of complex grant agreements from governments into much simpler plain English funding agreements between Fred Hollows and the many partner organisations in foreign countries that perform vital 'on the ground' work on its behalf.
My work for UN Women, on the other hand, revolves around fundraising, sponsorships and events management. There is a lot more 'hustle' in this work than there is in the way government goes about things and, believe me, corporate sponsors don't sponsor events out of the goodness of their heart alone. It is a great opportunity to understand the importance of narrative in persuading people and to look for creative approaches to get to 'yes'."
Tony Beal Deputy
Rachel Chua, Senior Executive Lawyer, AGS Commercial, who received the Arts Law Pro Bono Award in 2017, made the following comments:
"I have really enjoyed assisting artists, writers, musicians, performers and Indigenous organisations as a volunteer lawyer with Arts Law. It has also been rewarding helping other not-for-profit or charitable organisations such as ChildFund Australia and Hear For You.
I have had the privilege of working for these clients on a wide range of interesting intellectual property and related commercial matters. It is a testament to AGS's commitment to its pro bono program that AGS lawyers are able to contribute in such a meaningful way to assisting these clients with their legal issues."
Senior Executive Lawyer
We provided advice to Project Independence, a Canberra-based charity supporting people with disabilities, on whether a proposed housing project complied with the requirements of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Chairman of Project Independence Glenn Keys (left) presenting OGC's Counsel Alex Kunzelmann and Senior General Counsel Genevieve Ebbeck with a certificate of appreciation for the pro bono legal advice they provided
LawHelp – assisting not-for-profit Indigenous corporations
One of our proudest achievements is assisting with the establishment of the LawHelp Pro Bono Referral Scheme. LawHelp is a scheme developed by AGS and the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations to match up pro bono providers with not-for-profit corporations registered under the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 that require legal help.
The scheme offers help to remote and regional corporations which, for a number of reasons and through no fault of their own, cannot access legal assistance.
Through LawHelp, AGS has provided pro bono legal advice to a large number of Indigenous corporations all across Australia, many in rural areas.
AGS also worked in collaboration with ORIC to develop templates and guides aimed at assisting Indigenous corporations to better manage their obligations as employers. Our National Pro Bono Manager is also a member of the LawHelp assessment panel.
Training and legal resources for community legal centres
The community and non-profit legal sector also play a vital role in ensuring access to free advice and legal information for a wide range of the Australian public. Community legal education in the sector is crucial to service delivery and AGS is proud to be able to support these organisations, either though presenting at sessions to the community or, alternatively, drafting resources directed to educating the community about specific legal issues or assisting lawyers at community legal centres.
Our work includes working with the Women's Legal Centre in the ACT to develop and draft kits to guide self-represented litigants in matters involving care and protection orders. These kits, which are couched in clear, easy-to-understand language, are designed to assist those in the community who do not have the capacity to pay for legal assistance but need to navigate the relevant court processes and to 'demystify' those processes but provide sufficient details on matters, such as how to complete the relevant forms and the nature of the evidence required to support the necessary applications.
Lawyers in our national civil claims team drafted an 'Application to stay a warrant for eviction in the ACT Supreme Court' kit for solicitors working with the Welfare Rights Legal Centre's Street Law program. The kit includes material about the legal test that needs to be satisfied to succeed with a stay application in the ACT Supreme Court, and pro forma Supreme Court forms and affidavits covering the stay application and appeal, including some guidance notes about the process.
Another example was our advice to the Consumer Law Centre (ACT) on the key principles of a particular decision concerning the validity of guarantees and its possible application. The advice assisted the Centre's Principal Lawyer to advise clients about their rights and obligations in terms of specific loan contracts.
Lawyers in our employment and debt-recovery teams worked with the Self Representation Program of JusticeConnect on a pro bono basis, to provide assistance to draft fact sheets on bankruptcy, court practice and procedures, and Fair Work matters. These fact sheets are designed to explain in clear terms some of the key principles to better equip self-represented litigants to understand their rights and obligations and how the relevant court process works.
AGS has also provided legal education to lawyers of community legal centres. It is critical for these organisations to provide core services in an effective and efficient way. Training and staff development for both staff and volunteers in the sector is crucial to service delivery. An organisation's ability to provide this training may be affected by budgetary constraints and large staff turnover, hence legal training on a pro bono basis is essential to help develop the appropriate skill-sets.
AGS's national competition and consumer law team developed and delivered training to staff of community legal centres in NSW and QLD on changes in consumer law, working in conjunction with the ACCC. The training supported community legal centres to help people who cannot afford legal assistance with consumer law problems, particularly unfair contract terms.
Our Training Services team delivered training in the areas of statutory interpretation, the model litigant principles and the principles of the compensation for detriment caused by defective administration scheme, to staff of community legal centres in the ACT and in NSW.
International pro bono
AGS's pro bono program also extends internationally with particular focus on assisting Australia's important partners in the Asia–Pacific region.
Papua New Guinea (PNG)
Our international pro bono work includes well-established training courses for lawyers of the PNG Department of Justice and Attorney General (DJAG). The topics covered include legal reasoning; advice-writing and commercial arrangements. Senior Executive Lawyers, Helen Curtis (AGS Commercial) and Justin Hyland (AGS Dispute Resolution) presented training in December 2016 for the DJAG. Justin, together with Elena Arduca, another Senior Executive Lawyer in AGS Dispute Resolution, did a further week's training in September 2017.
On their last day, the State Solicitor arranged a meeting with them to thank them both and AGS and the Attorney-General's Department (AGD) for the training we have been presenting over many years now. He stressed how highly valued the training is and the use that is made of results from courses such as advice-writing in assessing the progress of lawyers in the Office of State Solicitor.
AGS also developed a very important innovative pro bono partnership with the FemiliPNG Project, which runs a Case Management Centre based in Lae. The FemiliPNG is a local non-government organisation established to assist survivors of family and sexual violence to access the services they need. AGS provided pro bono assistance on employment contracts and governance issues, which was invaluable to the FemiliPNG Project during its start-up phase when it needed time-critical advice crucial for the operations of the organisation.
AGD's Pacific Legal Policy Champions Program and Pacific Legal Policy Twinning Program
AGS also supports AGD's Pacific Legal Policy Champions Program, which brings 6–8 lawyers from various Pacific countries (eg Vanuatu, PNG, Solomon Islands, Fiji) to Canberra for a legal policy development course. The department's Pacific Legal Policy Twinning Program involves about 4 lawyers visiting for a few months to work on a legal policy project.
AGS delivered a 1-day legal reasoning course for the Twinning Program lawyers in early November 2016 and in 2017 has run 2-day courses in April and October on legal reasoning and advice-writing.
In 2016 AGS provided administrative law training for judges of the Nauruan Supreme Court, as well as the Secretary and lawyers in the Department of Justice of Nauru under the auspices of the International Association of Refugee Law Judges (IARLJ)
AGS has also collaborated with Bridges Across Borders, South-East Asia Community Legal Education Initiative Australia and a number of other legal firms to draft modules covering ethics, access to justice and pro bono to be used as part of the university curriculum in South-East Asian countries. Geetha Nair and Tim Moe of our Training team drafted the modules on 'How and why do pro bono?' and on aspects of the duties of lawyers. We delivered the pro bono modules in Vietnam and received excellent feedback. These modules have also been delivered in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand and will continue to be promoted in the South-East Asian region.
If you are interested to learn more about AGS's pro bono program, please contact Geetha Nair, National Manager, Pro Bono Services at firstname.lastname@example.org