125th anniversary of the Law Society of South Australia.

St Peter's Cathedral - Friday 26 November 2004 Hon John von Doussa Q C

Today, on its 125th anniversary, we celebrate the very considerable achievements of the Law Society of South Australia. This is an occasion to reflect on these past successes, to consider their present significance, and to think about the future.

The Society was established in late November 1879. Within a month 72 practitioners had joined, and the Law Society was functioning. And it has done so with great effect ever since.

On this occasion it is possible only to a touch fleetingly on a few of its credits.

As a professional body it has always concerned itself with the welfare of its members and for more than a century it was the instrument of self regulation of the profession in this State. But from the outset, these internal membership matters have only been a small part of the objects of the Society. It has always pursued the public role of seeking justice and fairness within the community through the rule of law, a fiercely independent profession, and support for the independence of the judiciary.

From its earliest years the Society has been very active in advocating reform of the law and this has remained an area of concentrated activity. Today many of its 23 committees spend countless hours on formulating proposals to improve the law, on considering bills, and on the preparation of submissions about proposed changes to the law.

Perhaps the most enduring contribution to justice which the society and its members have made is through the provision of free legal assistance. Long before the notion of publicly funded legal aid arose, the Society established a formal Legal Assistance scheme. This happened by agreement with the government in 1925 when the Society undertook that no person in need of legal assistance and deserving of it, would be left without assistance by reason of lack of means.

The society and its members honoured that commitment for more than 50 years before the legal-aid commission took over the function. However, the provision of free advice and assistance to those in need has continued through supplementary schemes which the Society has set up, and through the pro bono activities of its members. Access to justice for very many South Australians has been possible in this State only because of the dedication and moral commitment of the Society's membership to the protection of the dignity of their fellow human beings.

Over the decades the Society's activities have changed, but have continued to grow, as the number of lawyers in the State has grown. Most notably the role of the society in the provision of legal education has increased constantly. Today it presents an accredited diploma course in legal practice for new law graduates. This training, and comprehensive programmes of continuing legal education ensure that the commerce, industry and the citizens of South Australia have available a very competent legal profession.

Many of these things I have mentioned, and more, however, are successes of the past. Why are we here today celebrating them? We do so because it is that history that has established the Society as a credible voice in the public affairs of this State, and because it demonstrates how time, effort and goodwill by the Society's members can contribute to the well-being of our legal system. And to all those who have contributed in the past, we pay tribute.

This brings me to a central purpose of our celebrations - which is to contemplate how the society and its membership should use its reputation and potential in the future.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the major international human rights Conventions that it has spawned, commence with the preamble which states that recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom and justice and peace in the world. The Conventions recognise that the human rights and freedoms which they specify are the entitlement of everyone, to be enjoyed equally without distinction of any kind.

Australia has acceded to these Conventions, and endorses a human rights policy based on the principle that human rights are inherent, inalienable, indivisible and universal. The implementation of this principle requires that the spirit of human rights should, indeed must, pervade the community.

In contemplating its ongoing role, may I urge the view that this principle should be the pivotal benchmark against which the Society evaluates all its activities.

Assuming this aim, I mention just a few topics, although there are many more.

Even in the well developed democratic system of government which we enjoy, good laws are not necessarily a guarantee of justice or of the protection of human rights. The community must be able to access the laws and in this the need for an independent, well trained legal profession cannot be underestimated. On their services, and often on their preparedness to act for less than a proper return, those charged with offences, members of minority groups and other people who suffer disability depend when they journey through the legal system.

Laws become outdated. One need only reflect on the laws that imposed the White Australia policy, or which prohibited married women from working in the public service, to illustrate the point. The laws must be constantly scrutinised. Presently there is discussion about the laws which should govern people in same-sex relationships, about homosexuality and about abortion. These are very important issues that will benefit from the expert contributions that lawyers can make. It is not the role of judges to engage in public debate about law reform on contentious issues. It falls very much to bodies like the Law Society to ensure well-balanced, informed public discussion.

Currently the emerging realisation of the threat of terrorism provides another example. The right of every individual to be protected from physical harm and from attack on the societal structure in which they live is plainly a fundamental human right of the highest order. The community expects its government to take stern and effective measures. However in its enthusiasm for self-protection, the community is inclined to overlook the rights of people who may be innocent of any wrong doing and who get caught up in the enforcement of anti-terrorism measures. To achieve proper recognition of the rights of both suspects and the wider community is complex and difficult. The voice of the legal profession will be important in doing so.

I also mention equality of opportunity. There are regrettably many areas of inequality in our community that urgently need to be addressed.

Equality of opportunity for Indigenous Australians is long overdue. Notwithstanding the commitment of money to support practical reconciliation programmes, and other government initiatives, the plight of the Indigenous community overall is tragic. In life expectancy, health, education, employment, and in prison incarceration rates, they fall well below the standards of the rest of the community. This is an area where there is enormous scope for the expert voice of the Law Society to assist in advancing understanding of Indigenous culture, and in turn to promote the enjoyment of basic human rights and dignity.

Finally I mention the equality of the rights of women in the legal profession. Our society remains influenced by two historically based social norms - the "ideal worker" who is male and works full-time and takes little time off for child raising, and the "domestic care giver" who is a female and undertakes the role of care giving in a family, especially to the children.

This division of responsibility denies equality of opportunity to women in pursuing a professional career, unless their special needs are accommodated. Part-time work, job sharing, flexible hours and a change in culture are necessary parts of that accommodation.

There remains an urgent need within the legal profession to be proactive in forcing robust change. Until this issue is better addressed, the imbalance of women in the judiciary will continue. Accommodation will be needed not just in legal offices, but generally in the administration of the law, including the way courts undertake their business.

Colleagues, guests and friends, God willing, may the Law Society of South Australia through its membership continue to display courage and tenacity, as it has in the past, to strive for the advancement of justice, and for freedom and the enjoyment of human rights on an equal basis by everyone in our community.