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Changing perceptions of the legal profession

IMAGES of Ally McBeal, LA Law, and The Practice dominate our television screens, but the head of the WA Law Society wants to make sure the public can distinguish fantasy from reality.

WA Law Society president Ken Martin is concerned that misconceptions created by fiction made it more difficult for the legal system to work.

Mr Martin said not only did television present an unrealistic picture of an average lawyer’s working hours, these shows also portrayed a lifestyle and a legal system that simply does not exist on the western seaboard of Australia.

“While The Practice occasionally throws up some interesting ethical questions, the whole grind associated with the preparation and conduct of real matters, was lost,” he said.

Mr Martin said he also was very concerned about the disparity in the ethics displayed by the TV characters.

“The witness coaching that is apparent on these shows is a huge no-no. I would hate the public to think that this was acceptable practice for lawyers,” he said.

Criminal lawyers are bound not to mislead the Court.

Ethics dictate that, if they know their client is guilty, the client must plead guilty and enter a plea in mitigation.

The defence lawyer cannot lead evidence or put a question in the affirmative which says the client is not guilty.

“In civil litigation matters, as well as criminal, many people do not realise that a lawyer’s primary duty is to the court,” Mr Martin said.

“A lawyer can’t assist in falsehoods or the concealment of relevant information from the court. In the discovery process, it is not good enough to just provide a list of the documents on hand.

“A thorough search should be made and the client has to be asked the questions ‘are there any other documents’.

“One only has to look to our neighbouring continents to see the drastic effects of a breakdown in the independence of the judiciary and a legal system. Freedom of speech is a privilege we take for granted.

“Being able to air views in public without fear of persecution is integral to a healthy legal system.

“Lawyers inject integrity into the justice system. They have to operate in the public spotlight and, by doing so, they provide a safety valve.”

Mr Martin said part of the image problem resulted from an earlier reticence by the legal profession to be available for discussion with the media.

The public, therefore, was largely unaware of the amount of pro bono, or free, legal services the profession provided.

“Every day there is a barrister in this chamber (Sir Frances Burt Chambers) donating their time to a litigant in need, from the most junior barristers to the most senior QCs,” Mr Martin said. “For instance, Malcolm McCusker QC assisted the Micklebergs in their later appeal, on a pro bono basis.”

Free help is not limited to barristers. Several of the major law firms have pro bono committees and they devote a considerable amount of their time and resources to matters considered meritorious.

Freehills Pro Bono Committee chairman Steven Penglis said the firm had more than 20 pro bono files at present.

“Firms such as Freehills also provide volunteers, two weeks per month, to the Sussex St Community Law Service that provides free legal advice on an ongoing basis,” Mr Penglis said.

He said Freehills’ commitment to pro bono work was such that the firm was presently interviewing a large number of applicants for the newly created position of national pro bono coordinator.

The Law Society also is making law more accessible, setting up a shop front law office, Law Access, with a full-time solicitor providing advice to the public for $22 for 20 minutes.

The Law Society Bulletin reports that the Federal Government and some of Australia’s largest law firms have developed a free website addressing Internet law.

Oz NetLaw can be found at website oznetlaw.net and provides a free web-based and telephone advice service for queries on Internet and e-commerce law.

During Law Week, more than 400 members of the profession will participate in providing free advice and opening up the legal system in various other ways. Mix 94.5 radio station is providing a conduit to the public for free legal advice.

Specialist sessions on family law and tenancy advice are available each day by telephoning 9388 1474.

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