LEGAL PROFESSION UNIFORM LAW APPLICATION BILL 2013

Ms GARRETT (Brunswick) — It is a pleasure to rise to speak on the Legal Profession Uniform Law Application Bill 2013. As some of our colleagues have pointed out, those of us on both sides of the house with legal backgrounds have rushed to talk about the detail of this legislation, which I am sure will capture the imagination of Victorians all over the state!

I had to duck out of the chamber briefly, and I came back to hear the last speaker, the member for Prahran, making some quite extraordinary comments about ties, plumbers uniforms and wigs. I obviously missed the beginning of those comments, but the comments that were made after I sat down did not make a lot more sense. It was clear that the member was seeking to tee off against the former government and most significantly against the former Attorney-General.

Having worked extremely closely with the former Attorney-General, Rob Hulls, the member for Richmond and I know only too well that he was a giant of reform and a huge servant of this state.

I thought it was very brave of the member for Prahran not only to be teeing off against the former Attorney-General and the former government but to be doing so in the context of what this government has done to the justice system. We are three years in, with legal aid in absolute crisis, with the courts completely clogged, with prisoners not showing up to court because of a funding crisis in our justice services, with departments being held in contempt by judges, with diversion programs in absolute ruins and, most significantly, with crime statistics having been up every single year since the Napthine and Baillieu governments have been in power.

Mr Newton-Brown interjected.

Ms GARRETT — The member for Prahran provides such interesting comments.

The ACTING SPEAKER (Mr McCurdy) — Order! I ask the member for Prahran to keep his comments to himself.

Ms GARRETT — That leads me back to this scintillating piece of legislation. As we have heard, the coming together of Victoria and New South Wales in signing up to the uniform laws is a significant step. This has been a long process. Would you believe trying to make changes to the regulation of the legal profession caused a lot of lawyers to delay the process and put forward reasons as to why it should not take place? A decade later we have come to this reform.

The bill does a range of things.

The areas it covers include admission to the legal profession; legal practice, including business structures, licensing and registration of foreign lawyers; trust money and trust accounts; and legal costs, including disclosure requirements. Those of us who have either practised law or had to deal with the legal profession and the important work that lawyers do — as all of us have to at some point in our lives — know that these are critical aspects of how the legal profession is regulated and held to account. In this era of globalisation when firms often operate in different states, and some in all states and territories, it is important that there is a national approach to these matters for ease of multijurisdictional litigation and ease of operation for those law firms and the lawyers within them.

As we know, the opposition is not opposing this bill, although we do make a number of points about it. Clearly Queensland dropping out of this national scheme is cause for great concern.

We know just from looking at the media reports coming out of Queensland Premier Campbell Newman’s state that he is at war with the legal profession. Whether it is from the progressive side or the corporate conservative side of the legal profession, there is widespread condemnation of what is going on in Queensland on a range of issues. As someone who lived in Queensland for several years, I am not surprised that Queensland has decided to opt out of this national scheme. We call on the Napthine government to renew its efforts in building that jurisdictional cooperation. To federal Attorney-General George Brandis we say, ‘Get your skates on, sir’.

We also note some of the concerns with the bill. It was drafted in a short time frame and without enough consultation with consumers of legal services. This is a concern given that this reform has been a decade in the making. We think the government could have spent a bit more time getting this bill right; it has been in office now for three years.

It is concerning that the government has rushed through this reform that has been around for so many years.

As the member for Lyndhurst and shadow Attorney-General, as the lead speaker for the opposition, made clear, we have some serious ongoing concerns about the issue of legal costs and the changes the bill makes to protections for consumers of legal services by removing the responsibility for setting the threshold for costs disclosure from the Parliament and giving it to the legal profession.

Costs is the area in which most disputes around legal services arise. An agreement about costs, nature of work and scope has to be set out so that consumers of legal services have a clear and detailed estimate of the work that needs to be undertaken and the cost of that work. Legal work can take a long time. It has a range of facets. It can go down many rabbit holes depending on what the opposing side seeks to do. Therefore people can get a shock from the bill at the end of those processes if the costs were not properly explained to them. That is particularly the case when the person was unsuccessful in litigation and failed to gain compensation or what they were seeking through that process.

This legislation will take the costs disclosure threshold out of the control of the Parliament, removing an important level of oversight. As much as I love the legal profession, I think it would give consumers a lot more confidence if this was not the case. We are concerned about those matters.

We are also concerned about the cost of the scheme and how it will be borne. The Law Institute of Victoria has said it lacks the funds to contribute to these reforms. I note that the government has indicated that the scheme will be paid for out of the Public Purpose Fund. There are real issues around this given that this fund also funds Victoria Legal Aid and other organisations. Given the current serious crisis in Victoria Legal Aid and in access to justice for Victorians, we call on the government and the Attorney-General in particular to explain exactly how much this will cost, where the money is going to come from and what the impact will be on already very stretched services. We again note that these services are being stretched to breaking point by the faux tough agenda the government has pursued since coming to office.

In conclusion, we do not oppose the legislation.

It is an important step forward that Victoria and New South Wales, which are the two jurisdictions that have the most lawyers and legal firms, have come together and taken the step of signing up to a uniform regulatory scheme for the legal profession. We note that there is a lot more work to be done by the Napthine and Abbott governments to make sure that this becomes a truly national scheme. We call on them to get on with that work. Having said that, we do not oppose this legislation.

Hansard, 2014