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Our pro bono programme in Australia

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A&O’s pro bono and community investment programme in Australia has grown significantly in recent years, led by partners Karolina Popic in Sydney and Meredith Campion and David Jenaway in Perth.

Both the number of volunteers and volume of pro bono hours recorded in Australia have increased – the latter by over 1,000 hours in the past financial year alone – driven both by a well-developed local programme of work, as well as involvement in many of A&O’s high profile international projects.

We speak to A&O’s pro bono coordinators – Julia Burvill (Banking lawyer, Perth) and Lachlan Shelley (Corporate lawyer, Sydney) – about taking on their new roles last year and the issues A&O is focusing on in Australia.

Aerial view of an Aeolian landform

“I’ve been involved in pro bono work for several years now, which I have really enjoyed as it gives me the chance to do something different outside of my day-to-day role,” Julia says. “Taking on more responsibility for the Australian offices’ pro bono programme means Lachlan and I have an influence over the direction of our work and can engage more people in our offices – particularly transactional lawyers who traditionally see pro bono as something typically for disputes lawyers.”

Lachlan agrees. “Like Julia, I was keen to be more involved in building the profile of our pro bono practice and shaping the kind of work we do. I also want to develop our network of pro bono clients so that we can offer people opportunities that cater to the wide spectrum of issues they care about. That – along with fostering a culture where people understand the benefits and feel encouraged to take on pro bono and community investment (PBCI) work – is key to driving engagement.”

Lachlan and Julia’s roles – done alongside their fee earning work – are joined up with their pro bono associate counterparts in Europe and the U.S., as well as A&O’s central PBCI team and network of over 100 partners and champions globally.

Our key areas of focus in Australia are aligned with A&O's firm-wide themes of human rights, social justice and displaced people. A crucial area for us within this is supporting organisations that are working to address injustices towards First Nations Australians, as part of the Australian offices's wider development of a reconciliation action plan.

Julia Burvill, Banking lawyer, Perth

Tackling entrenched issues

In Sydney, an A&O team is currently acting in a public interest litigation representing an Aboriginal man who suffered assault while detained in custody. “The broader public interest context to this,” says Lachlan, “are the complex issues of Aboriginal deaths in custody and the disproportionate rates of incarceration of First Nations Australians.

“This is something we’re engaged with broadly across our offices – within our community investment programme, ‘Communitas’, our pro bono pipeline and our diversity and inclusion work – to expand how we address entrenched and systemic issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to contribute to our country’s journey towards reconciliation.”

In Perth, the Western Australia State Pro Bono Model requires law firms that are awarded State government contracts to provide pro bono legal services – equivalent to at least 10% of the value of their government legal work – for approved causes, such as community legal centres and representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as well as certain others who cannot access legal aid (including those referred by Law Access, a not-for-profit that coordinates the provision of pro bono assistance by the Western Australian legal profession).

We're actively working to increase our support for First Nations Australians and are scoping out the pro bono and volunteering opportunities coming through.

Julia Burvill, Banking lawyer, Perth

“We have good expertise to bring to this, in particular the end-to-end casework we do to represent individuals and charities throughout the entirety of a legal process. This also aligns with our Communitas initiative to develop a relationship with the Kulbardi Aboriginal Centre at Murdoch University in Perth. “End-to-end casework is very involved but also very high-impact,” Julia says, “for example, we recently spent two years providing corporate governance and restructuring advice to the Valued Lives Foundation, a charity that assists people with disabilities and/or mental health conditions to continue to live independently in their homes in the community, for which Valued Lives was very grateful.”

Rights for refugees and asylum seekers

Another important focus in both offices is supporting access to justice for displaced people. In Sydney, as Lachlan explains, “we’re working with asylum seekers that have come to Australia by boat, as they are subject to a specific subset of Australian immigration laws.” One of A&O’s key pro bono clients in Sydney is the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), an organisation that provides free legal advice and representation to financially disadvantaged and vulnerable people seeking asylum.

Lachlan established the relationship with RACS and is coordinating a team of A&O lawyers in Sydney who have received specialised training to provide advocacy and legal representation services to asylum seekers in relation to their protection visa interviews with the Department of Home Affairs.

“Without the assistance of RACS, we’ve seen instances of asylum seekers attending their interviews without representation or guidance on the complex immigration process in Australia,” Lachlan says. “These are extremely vulnerable people so I’m glad we’ve established the partnership with RACS so that our lawyers can assist their clients.”

In Perth, senior associate Jessica Stratford and partner David Jenaway are leading on a large-scale project for a major international agency in the Asia Pacific region, looking at international standards and domestic laws on refugee protection in certain key jurisdictions.

Julia has also coordinated the involvement of the Perth office in a long-term global project for the same organisation – funded by A&O’s Global Grants Programme – to review a database of refugee case law for the benefit of those involved in status determination processes.

Driving engagement

Both Julia and Lachlan agree that having a local pro bono management presence has helped to drive engagement across their offices.

The biggest change has been people actively bringing us new pro bono clients and opportunities they’ve sourced within their own networks and A&O being able to support these causes that people have a connection to. We want to encourage more of that – people furthering their own involvement in pro bono and community investment work.

Lachlan Shelley, Corporate lawyer, Sydney

One area that Lachlan and Julia have seen an increased interest in from colleagues and clients is addressing environmental issues. “We’ve done work in Sydney with the Jane Goodall Institute on an education programme around conservation and the natural environment, but we want to do more in this area,” Lachlan says.

In Perth, Julia has recently arranged for Corporate lawyers to assist a charity focused on environmental conservation in the Kimberly – a remote region in Northern Western Australia.

Other plans for the coming years in Perth and Sydney are to continue focusing on making meaningful contributions to First Nations Australians and displaced people – “as they are two of the most pressing social issues in Australia right now,” Julia says. “We are also identifying opportunities to work together with our commercial clients on areas of shared interest. “There is a genuine buzz of enthusiasm about pro bono and community investment work across our offices in Australia, which is really encouraging and something we both want to work hard to sustain.”

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