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It might be extreme, but the story of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” epitomises the difficulties of being a “small town” lawyer.
New research by Deakin shows that the fact that “everybody knows everybody” in a small town is having an impact on the availability of legal services to clients in rural and regional Victoria.
The report, “Conflicts of Interest in Victorian Rural and Regional Legal Practice," has identified significant issues that mean regional Victorians don’t have the same access to justice as their metropolitan counterparts.
The report was officially launched by Victoria’s Attorney General, the Hon Robert Clark, at Deakin’s Waterfront campus last week. It was prepared by Deakin’s Centre for Rural Regional Law (based in the Faculty of Business and Law), with funding from the Victoria Law Foundation.
Only established itself in 2011, the Centre for Rural Regional Law has played a major role in highlighting access to justice issues for rural communities as a major area of concern.
As part of this role, the Centre supported the development of the National Rural Law and Justice Alliance in 2012, whose secretariat is based at Deakin’s Waterfront Campus. The Alliance represents peak law, primary industry, health, aboriginal, environment, youth, drug and alcohol, disability organisations and academics from around Australia. Its Strategic Plan was also launched at the event last week.
The Centre for Rural Regional Law has a mission “to enhance access to improved justice systems and services for rural and regional Victorians through research, education, engagement and advocacy.”
The “Conflict of Interest” report was based on 163 survey responses and 40 interviews conducted with regional Victorian practitioners and peak legal profession bodies. Co-author and Director of the Centre, Mr Richard Coverdale, said he was not surprised that conflict of interest was such an issue.
“This report was initiated following the findings of our “Postcode Justice” report, which indicated that conflict of interest was one of the most significant issues affecting rural and regional lawyers’ ability to provide services to clients. The issue was raised by 70 per cent of lawyers surveyed,” he said.
“Managing conflicts of interest raises particular challenges for solicitors in rural and regional settings where, for example, lawyers and the parties in dispute are more likely to be known to each other and it is more likely that there have been past dealings.”
“These challenges are represented as a number of ‘grey areas’ for rural lawyers, who may have to balance a range of professional dilemmas in relation to their ethical responsibilities, responsibilities to their often long-term clients and responsibilities in maintaining the economic viability of their legal practice.
"This is also combined with a broader responsibility of maintaining community confidence in lawyers and the justice system,” Mr Coverdale said.
The report makes a number of recommendations, covering current legal practice regulation, mentoring, education and ethics, which should be of significant interest to the legal profession, in both private and public legal service sectors.
A plain language client brochure has also been produced as part of the project.