The real strength of the foundation is its independence from politics and other limitations and being able to undertake research and react to the realities of those who are struggling, without having to wait for the political process to do something.
The Law and Justice Foundation, which turns 50 this year, has been instrumental in improving access to justice for the people of NSW.
In 1967, the Law Society of NSW adopted an innovative approach to using interest on trust monies held on behalf of clients.
The result was the establishment of the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, which aimed to address fairness and equity issues within the justice system.
Since its inception, the foundation has helped improve and expand access to the justice system for people across NSW and beyond – especially those from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Through the development and application of evidence-based research, the foundation has helped advance the planning and delivery of legal services where and when they are most needed.
The not-for-profit organisation has also played a key role in improving access to justice through an expansive range of initiatives, publications, advisory centres, grants, and research.
Anne Cregan, a partner in Gilbert + Tobin’s pro bono practice, attests to the importance of the foundation. “The Law and Justice Foundation picks the right issues to examine; the ones that are important and will make a difference,” she says.
Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow, who used to head the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) which the foundation helped establish, commends the organisation.
“The Law and Justice Foundation identified, before almost anyone else, that there was a need for an organisation in NSW to undertake systemic law and policy work to promote social justice and fairness,” Santow says.
“The foundation then rolled up its sleeves and was integral in doing the practical work to establish PIAC to undertake this work. PIAC’s extraordinary record of achievement over 35 years owes a great deal to that prescience and support from the foundation.”
Local flavour, global impact
According to the foundation’s director, Geoff Mulherin, the organisation’s structure means it can respond to the needs of the community by identifying what those needs are and finding the gaps in service. “The real strength of the foundation is its independence from politics and other limitations, and being able to undertake research and react to the realities of those who are struggling, without having to wait for the political process to do something,” he says.
The foundation had a global impact from the start. Charles Brazier, a Canadian lawyer who visited Australia in 1967, was intrigued by the foundation’s innovative use of client interest accounts. His interest led to the formation of the Law Foundation in British Columbia in 1969, which was based on the NSW model.
It also led to a series of Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) programs in every US state, which gives individuals and families living in poverty better access to justice and also focuses on improving the US justice system. Closer to home, the foundation has been responsible for expanding access to and the understanding of the law and legal services in NSW, including helping create the College of Law.
Here are just a few examples of how the foundation has more than achieved its original mandate.
Community legal information and law in schools
According to Mulherin, the foundation has played a key role in bringing legal education into the community.
In 1974, it established the High School Education Law Project, which led to the inclusion of legal studies in the NSW Higher School Certificate and the introduction of the law into other parts of the curriculum.
In 1983, the foundation launched the Pocket Guide to the Law. Its simple and easy-to-follow format – one topic per page, arranged in alphabetical order – provided the non-legally trained public with practical information on the law, their rights, and where to go for help. An immediate success, the foundation sold its entire print run of 10,000 books in four days. More than 400,000 copies were sold during its lifetime.
The guide also inspired other publications for the general public that explained the law in plain English. Although the Pocket Guide to the Law ceased publication many years ago, its impact lives on – the foundation recently received a request to update the Italian language version.
Improving access to information
The foundation has played a key role in providing Australians with free, accessible legal information. It helped with the initial funding of the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII), which provides free online access to Australian court decisions, legislation and other legal material. It was also the driving force behind the Legal Information Access Centre (LIAC), which provides free legal information through the network of more than 350 NSW public libraries and online at legalanswers.sl.nsw.gov.au. Today, the program is funded and supported by NSW councils and the State Library and is seen as a crucial source of legal information, materials and court decisions across the state.
Another key initiative, Foundation Law, was established in 1996. It was an important shift in recognising a need to provide free primary and secondary online legal information and bring together key legal information, including all Australian court lists, from different sources.
“It changed the paradigm by providing the public with access to court legislation and decisions for free,” Mulherin says.
Although the courts now provide this information, the foundation’s court lists are still the most heavily trafficked part of its web portal.
In 1982, the foundation saw a need for specialised litigation and campaigns to promote and protect the public interest by helping establish PIAC. From its modest beginnings, the independent legal centre has been a trailblazer in strategic litigation and advocacy.
In the 1970s, a contraceptive device called the Dalkon Shield was linked to serious health concerns, including infertility and death. Although it was withdrawn from the US market in 1973, the company continued to sell the device around the world, including in Australia. PIAC played a key role in publicising the adverse consequences, representing Australian women in the US court cases and getting compensation for thousands.
The foundation has also helped raise the profile of important legal issues through its grants program. In 1992, for example, it supported two studies that reviewed the law in relation to people with intellectual disabilities, which led to the NSW Law Reform Commission’s 1996 “People with an Intellectual Disability and the Criminal Justice System” report and resulted in legislative change when the Mental Health (Criminal Procedure) Amendment Bill 2005 was introduced.
In 1998, it supported research into the removal of Indigenous children on grounds of neglect, which led to the 2002 Cunneen and Libesman “Report into Substantiated Cases of Emotional Abuse and Neglect Against Indigenous Children in NSW”.
In 1991, the foundation provided a grant to fund an evaluation of the Women’s Domestic Violence Assistance Scheme by the Redfern Legal Centre. This report led to a series of domestic violence court assistance schemes in NSW.
The foundation’s evidence-based research has been credited with underpinning crucial reforms across the NSW legal environment and ensuring that legal assistance services are available for those with the greatest needs. The foundation’s work integrates qualitative research with legal services and population data to support service planning and delivery. Reports from its research in the 1990s on who litigates and why, the costs of civil litigation, the impact of adverse publicity on criminal jury trials, and the provision of criminal legal aid for committal hearings remain in demand.
The foundation’s 2012 Legal Australia-Wide (LAW) survey of legal needs, which the organisation maintains is the world’s largest national legal survey, identifies the differences between legal needs, responses and outcomes across the population. The study examined legal problems people experience, how they react, the barriers they encounter in getting assistance, and the outcomes they achieve. The survey has resulted in changes in policy and service delivery at the state, territory and national level.
“Our research has changed the paradigm for how we – the justice sector here and globally – look at the legal needs of the community,” Mulherin says. “We now know what problems people are likely to have and are starting to identify what works to solve them.”
So, what’s in store for the next 50 years?
According to Mulherin, it will be business as usual. The organisation will continue to uncover, provide and use data to ensure the most cost-effective way to deliver legal services. It will continue to undertake work to improve the understanding of the legal needs of the community.
“The foundation works with a collaborative spirit, which means the various stakeholders providing services are able to respond to emerging or unmet needs across the community,” adds Michael Tidball, Chief Executive Officer of the Law Society of NSW.
And, says Mulherin, Law Society members can be proud that they set up and have continued to support the foundation, which has had such a significant impact.