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The challenges of the decade so far can be a catalyst for a fairer justice system and a healthier, thriving profession, the Law Society of NSW’s Law Term Dinner heard during two resounding addresses.

The event at the Hyatt Regency Sydney on Monday March 28 marked the final law term speech for former Chief Justice of NSW, Tom Bathurst, who retired on March 5 after more than a decade in the role and 50 years in the legal profession.

“It is an honour and somewhat bittersweet to address you for the eleventh and final time … since I am no longer Chief Justice, you can think of these as the reflections of a pensioner,” he said in his opening remarks, delivered to a crowd including his successor, new Chief Justice of NSW Andrew Bell, NSW Governor Margaret Beazley and NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman.

“Some things have significantly changed [in 50 years].  Other things seem frustratingly stagnant.  With this in mind, how do we move towards a more just legal system?”

He urged that “a just legal system is not one which is only just to most people.”

“We won’t achieve a system that is just until First Nations communities and elders are not merely consulted but have an active role in the formation of the laws and processes which affect them, including, I think, constitutional recognition.  This is how the legal system will be able to take into account diverse norms and values and address complex local issues.

“The legal system, in its most expansive sense, must remember areas in which justice is far from perfectly delivered.  It must work together with communities to achieve outcomes which embrace a broad, society-wide conception of justice.

“No legal system is perfect.  But good legal systems grapple with these questions.”

His speech was followed by an address by the 2022 Law Society President, Joanne van der Plaat.

Ms van der Plaat outlined her five key focus areas for her presidency: supporting the profession’s health and wellbeing, finding ways to better support the profession, courts and clients in rural and regional NSW, protecting human rights in NSW, responding to the impacts of COVID on the justice system and advocating for greater court resources.

Joanne van der Plaat, Law Society President Joanne van der Plaat, Law Society President

COVID has been ruthless in exposing our weaknesses – in our institutions, supply chains, and society at large

“COVID has been ruthless in exposing our weaknesses – in our institutions, supply chains, and society at large,” she said.

“We should be proud that our courts and tribunals have proven so resilient, while other institutions and systems have struggled.”

With a Federal Election to be called imminently, and the NSW State Election in March 2023, Ms van der Plaat acknowledged government investment in the courts and noted “it is easy to say that we need to invest in the justice system the same way we invest in health, education and infrastructure.”

“If there are large population explosions and housing developments in northwest Sydney, what courts do they use?” she asked.

“It might not always be understood why it is not politically motivating to suggest that a new courthouse needs to be built – or an existing one upgraded to match the shiny police station next door in the same way schools or hospitals are built in areas of high population growth, but our members get it. As do the communities we serve.”

A proud country lawyer, Ms van der Plaat said she was eager to promote regional and rural practice “not as an ‘alternative’ career, but as a challenging and rewarding one.”

“According to the 2020 National Profile of Solicitors, only 12 per cent of our profession practices outside metro areas [and] in 2018 the Law Council of Australia’s Justice Project found 19 LGAs in NSW without a practising solicitor.

“This year, I want to spend as much time as possible visiting our regions; listening to our members and finding out how we can better assist them.”