December 7, 2011  |  Second Reading

Leo Cussen Institute (Registration as a Company) Bill 2011

I am pleased to rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Leo Cussen Institute (Registration as a Company) Bill 2011. For a start, I note that some 52 per cent of law graduates here in Victoria are women. I note further that this Liberal government has failed in its first 12 months to appoint any women as County Court or Supreme Court judges.

Given that 52 per cent of law graduates in Victoria are women, it is a great shame that this Liberal government has refused to appoint any women to the position of County Court or Supreme Court judge. It does not seem to matter whether they were perhaps women who studied at the Leo Cussen Institute; this government is refusing to appoint women to senior judicial positions across the board, particularly in the County Court or the Supreme Court.

The changes that are being made by the bill have been canvassed adequately. They are pretty simple changes to the company structure. The bill transforms Leo Cussen from a statutory body to a company limited by guarantee. The changes have been recommended by a number of reviews, and that work has been very much welcomed by other stakeholders and those interested in matters pertaining to the law.

I note that over a number of years Leo Cussen has provided graduates with an opportunity to get their practical credentials in the law where they have not taken the more traditional route of an articled clerkship. That has certainly provided an opportunity for people trying to weigh up, I suppose, the benefits of either option. Sometimes doing an articled clerkship might depend a bit on whether or not you have the good fortune to be placed with a law firm or particularly as an understudy to a lawyer who can give you the appropriate training. Where that happens, that is great, whereas the opportunities that the Leo Cussen Institute provides people to gain the law experience they need in their final years of training have a breadth and depth probably not always available to those who do an articled clerkship. Those who are able to get a clerkship or do their articles have variability in where they go, but some law firms do not offer the breadth and depth that perhaps doing that study through Leo Cussen provides.

Certainly it can be an anxious time for students when they are finishing their commitments to obtain a law degree and are seeking the opportunity to do their articles. Often it is a bit of a lottery; I know that where to do that final year of their studies is something that weighs on the minds of people who are completing a law degree. My wife is a lawyer. She went through that process of determining whether she would do an articled clerkship or perhaps go to the Leo Cussen Institute. She went on to do an articled clerkship. But I know that for many young people where they pursue their training depends very much on the opportunities available to them.

Leo Cussen Institute has provided those opportunities for many years.

The regulatory oversight of training for legal practitioners has changed a lot, and I think that is a key point. It is often not available to people who elect to do an articled clerkship. Some stuffy older law firms may not be up with the latest changes to the law, whereas the Leo Cussen Institute provides a breadth and depth of training and keeps up with the regulatory oversight of young lawyers who want to complete their training.

Dr John Lynch was one of those who was involved in the review that led to the changes that are being proposed for the Leo Cussen Institute. He found that it would not require much effort to change the institute from a statutory body to a company limited by guarantee.

It is quite clear that the review found the changes would be welcome and would not undermine the key role of the Leo Cussen Institute, which is to provide a breadth and depth of professional development and opportunity for people who otherwise may not have that opportunity and may not be able to do an articled clerkship.

I note that in the second-reading speech the minister referred to the requirement that the Leo Cussen Institute provide access to participation in legal practice by people with diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds. This is a critical issue for members on this side of the house. I note from investigations I have undertaken in relation to the Leo Cussen Institute website that while it aspires to those goals and seeks to represent those who are disadvantaged and from diverse backgrounds in our communities, we on this side of the house wish to hear further from the minister as to how he sees that commitment being followed through in the new structure.

It is clear from the quality and the calibre of candidates who have been through the institute that this is something it has delivered on. We would like to see more details on the Leo Cussen Institute website about how it will pursue charitable purposes that include providing education for and encouraging access to participation in legal practice by people from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds.

I am not claiming that the institute is not committed to these matters, but I think it is important that the law be accessible by all — not just by those who require the services of the law but by those who choose to take up the law as their vocation in life to represent others. It is important that we see a breadth and depth of quality of candidates do that. Often those from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds can make a great contribution to the law, not just as lawyers but also as law-makers in this Parliament. I will seek further information from the minister in relation to those matters.

Further to the review, it was noted that there would not be any negative effects in changing the structure of the Leo Cussen Institute. There was a wide-ranging consultation process, and the bill has the support of all parties.

We note that the Law Institute of Victoria and other community law services, including the West Heidelberg Community Legal Service in my electorate of Ivanhoe, with which I have spoken, have not expressed concerns about this bill, but the West Heidelberg Community Legal Service raised, as have others, the matter of the great value that the Leo Cussen Institute has provided to law students and aspiring lawyers over many years. People do not go to the institute just to pursue the final years of their professional studies in law when they have chosen not to pursue an articled clerkship in the more traditional sense; there is also a range of other courses around industrial law advocacy and different roles such as the one the member for Williamstown and others in this house have been able to pursue at the institute.

That goes to the breadth and depth of the services the institute is able to offer that are of great importance to people in the community who are seeking those services.

It is also important to note that Leo Cussen made a great contribution as a lawyer in Victoria. He was from Portland and made a great contribution as a civil engineer in the late 1800s. He then went on to be acknowledged by a number of eminent jurists and former prime ministers such as Sir Robert Menzies and others for his great work. Former Justice Michael Kirby, who would be well known to many members, himself a great law-maker and advocate for equality and justice, also extolled the virtues of the work of Leo Cussen. It is apt that someone of the stature of Leo Cussen in the early part of the last century had the opportunity to have this institute named in his honour. The institute provides opportunities for young people to pursue their studies and gain a breadth and depth of experience in the law so they can advocate on behalf of others.

On this side of the house we are keen to hear more from the minister in relation to the work that this organisation will do in its new iteration in relation to those who are disadvantaged and those from diverse backgrounds who seek to have a career in the law. The Leo Cussen Institute has a strong track record in this area, and we on this side of the house have a strong track record of advocating in this area. I commend the bill to the house.