Victorian warning on lawyers involvement in crowdfunding activities

Lawyers in the state of Victoria have been warned about their public conduct. Fiona McLeay’s December 2021 report sets out the importance of balance between access to justice and acting in a client’s best interests.

The report reminds lawyers to think carefully before advising communities to pursue cases which will likely not be successful in court or are not in the pursuant best interests. Crowdfunding got a special mention, noting it can improve access to justice by bridging the funding gap but must be balanced against what is in the best interests of those receiving the funding. Especially if the crowdfunding is being run by the client’s lawyer.

Read more here.

The Victorian Legal Services Board in Australia has issued new guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment

The Victorian Legal Services Board has published new resources on its website for people who experience of witness sexual harassment in the Victorian legal sector. These resources contain practical guidance about what individuals can do at the time and in the aftermath of experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment.

These guidelines are being put in place to assist people who need them and are key elements of the boards regulatory strategy to build knowledge, skills and leadership in the legal sector.

Read the full article here.

Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner releases new guide on innovative pricing models

New research undertaken by the Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner (LSB), through both their complaints and auditing process, has found that a major consumer complaint has been the billing model adopted by lawyers. With many lawyers opting for an hourly rater rather than a value based price. The LSB has found that this creates uncertainty as well as lowering productivity and discouraging the use of products to improve efficiency, for example, technology. As well as this the model creates a pressure on lawyers to hit billing targets, negatively impacting lawyer wellbeing.

Client research has also suggested that this is likely to cause access to justice issues, with many clients avoiding hiring a lawyer due to fears that the costs may spiral and leave them worse off, creating a perception of poor value for money in the legal services market.

The LSB has therefore released research and analysis into two pricing models, the agreed price model (whereby the service is commissioned at a fixed price) and the subscription model (whereby clients pay a recurring stable fee, in exchange for work whenever they need it). The research looks at the benefit of these models in comparison to the hourly rate, as well as looking at how firms may implement these new models.

Read more here. 

Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner welcomes findings of report into sexual harrasment in the court system

The Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner has responded to a new report examining  Sexual Harassment in Victorian Courts. The report was independently produced by Dr Helen Szoke, former Commissioner of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. The final report was released on the 19th of April, and examined measures to prevent sexual harassment, as well as improve reporting and support for those who experience sexual harassment,  and to raise awareness, and ensure accountability across the state’s courts.

The report included recommendations including:

  • the development, promotion and implementation of a sexual harassment policy that covers all staff and contractors
  • an independent review into the court’s recruitment process
  • targeted sexual harassment and discrimination training
  • an annual anonymous survey into harassment in the courts system

The Victorian Legal Services Board has acknowledged the report and its contents; expressing its support for the recommendations.

Victorian Legal Services Board CEO and Commissioner, Fiona McLeay has said: “The report’s 20 recommendations offer a clear roadmap for the courts and VCAT to foster respectful cultures and ensure safe workplaces. Like our 2019 study into sexual harassment in the legal profession, this report found that sexual harassment and the silence surrounding this behavior was perpetuated by power inequalities. We must build a culture where sexual harassment is no longer tolerated and where victim-survivors and bystanders feel safe to speak up. We look forward to working with the government and the courts to implement these changes to make a difference to everyone who works in the legal sector in Victoria”.

Read the full report here, or the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner’s response here.

Victoria Legal Services Board recommends significant changes to CPD

On the 25th November, the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner (VLSB) released the findings of an independent review into Continuing Professional Development (CPD) in Victoria. The review was conducted by independent consultant Chris Humphreys and involved interviews with over 170 organisation and individuals about how the system in Victoria could be improved, enabling the legal profession to have meaningful, relevant and accessible learning opportunities that enrich the quality of legal services provided to the Victorian community.

The review concluded that while the CPD system is not broken, it needs improvement to reflect more contemporary approaches to adult learning and professional development. Saying “The reverence for knowledge espoused, and genuinely felt, by many in the profession focuses on the acquisition of knowledge about the content of the law. While this focus is valuable, it is insufficient to equip a lawyer with the skills needed to apply the law, to conduct a business, to advise clients or employers, to make difficult ethical choices. Comprehensive learning is not embraced as an integral part of a practice in which a lawyer reflects systematically on their strengths and weaknesses and how to become a more effective lawyer”

A key recommendation of the report was the development of a competency framework for lawyers, which gives greater weight to skills needed for contemporary legal practice and to shift the focus of activity from compliance to genuine learning and development.

The report, ‘Getting the Point? Review of Continuing Professional Development for Victorian Lawyers’ provides 28 recommendations for change, including:

  • Development of a competency framework that describes the core skills for practising lawyers, differentiated by levels of experience and expertise
  • Production of resources for lawyers that provide information, guidance and templates about CPD activities, including reflective practise and planning
  • Working with the Law Institute, Victorian Bar and CPD providers to identify ways in which more effective, customised activities can be designed and delivered
  • Raising the profile and strengthening the resources available for CPD in key areas such as technology and the law, sexual harassment, family violence, diversity and inclusion, and health and wellbeing
  • Improving the approach to CPD Ethics programs
  • Developing a more active approach to identifying risk and linking CPD programs to identified risks
  • Using the CPD audit process to gather better information about risk and lawyers’ use of CPD
  • Establishing a CPD Steering Committee with representatives from the Law Institute, Victorian Bar, lawyers not in private practice, and academic or other experts to implement the review’s recommendations, in consultation with other stakeholders
  • Strengthening and re-orienting the profession’s culture of learning through leadership and communication of the new approaches.

There are also some recommendations aimed at clarifying and broadening the CPD topics and options available for those lawyers working in the corporate, government and community sector.

Fiona McLeay, Legal Services Board CEO and Commissioner said: “We are grateful to Chris for the high levels of engagement generated and fostered with our stakeholders and the legal profession and for the considered and thoughtful manner in which the review was conducted. We thank everyone who contributed to the review and took the time to share their experiences and views, and to engage in the conversation. We will now review the recommendations and develop a regulatory response for discussion in early 2021” Ms McLeay said.

See the VLSB’s statement, or read the full report

Victorian Legal Services Board announced $1m to improve access to legal services

On the 22nd October Victorian Legal Services Board CEO and Commissioner Fiona McLeay announced seven grant recipients who would receive shares of a $1 million fund, aimed at helping ordinary and vulnerable Victorians to access simple and affordable legal support services. Projects include a scheme to provide women in regional Victoria with a pathway out of the justice system and supporting people to apply for the Disability Support Pension

Victoria Legal Aid’s ‘Joined-Up Justice for Gippsland’ project will improve access to timely, appropriate and culturally safe legal assistance for priority clients and communities in the Gippsland region. The project aims to establish and improve referral pathways, create a network of non-legal service providers and help member organisations coordinate services. Whilst the Mental Health Legal Centre has received funding to assist people managing complex health and mental health issues apply for the Disability Support Pension, by providing improved access to Centrelink resources. This project builds on the work of Social Security Rights Victoria, who earlier this year launched an online support service, including a medical chat bot, to support people to apply for the Disability Support Pension.

Victorian Legal Services Board CEO and Commissioner Fiona McLeay has said : “This program provides vulnerable Victorians with innovative new ways to get access to legal services when they need it the most. I’m pleased to be announcing this year’s successful grant applicants, and I congratulate each of the organisations for their innovative projects and commitment to increasing access to justice for Victorians. During times of crisis, such as now, these organisations are more important than ever as increasing numbers of Victorians find themselves in need of help.”

Read more about the grant program here. 

Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner: lawyer well-being project

In 2019 the Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner interviewed people working across all parts of the legal profession to gain a deeper understanding of lawyers’ experiences of mental health and wellbeing over their careers.  These interviews were analysed and the resulting report ‘VLSB+C report on legal professionals’ reflections on wellbeing and suggestions for future reform’ is now available.

The report found that interview participants:

  • described being acculturated early in their career into a professional culture that frequently made it very difficult for the average individual to achieve wellbeing
  • identified a range of cultural and institutional factors that made it hard to improve the wellbeing of legal professionals
  • were positive about the direction of change in recent years and most, though not all, respondents conveyed optimism about a changing conversation regarding the wellbeing of legal professionals
  • had many ideas and suggestions for changes that could improve wellbeing within the profession

Some of the suggestions for improving wellbeing included embracing more comprehensive assistance programs like those in place overseas, increased collaboration with researchers, the increased promotion of counselling and debriefing programs, reforms to court practices, improved management training and the incorporation of a focus on wellbeing into CPD requirements.

Victorian Legal Service Board research into vulnerability to miscounduct

In February 2016 the Victorian Legal Service Board and Commissioner entered into a research partnership with the University of Melbourne. The project was designed to help identify risk patterns and predict areas of concern within the Victorian profession. The study focused on 10 years of regulatory data on complaints (2005 to 2015) and looked at lawyer vulnerabilities and misconduct.

In April this year, lead researcher Dr Marie Bismark, published the results of that study in the International Journal of the Legal Profession.

The research paper ‘Vulnerability to legal misconduct: a profile of problem lawyers’ is now available.

Read the Board’s statement.

Victoria Legal Services Board and Commissioner consultation on CPD

The Victoria Legal Services Board and Commissioner is currently accepting thoughts for their ongoing review on CPD in the state. The review is keen to hear from a broad range of lawyers and other stakeholders. The review is hoping to hear opinions on topics such as the levels CPD is aimed at, the role of regulators in CPD, effective learning styles, and topics that should be covered by CPD.

The Board has said “While most lawyers recognise the value of professional development in maintaining and enhancing their skills, there is concern that the current points-based system tends to drive a compliance-focused ‘box ticking’ exercise, rather than a more considered pursuit of learning and development suited to an individual lawyer’s particular needs.  We are also seeking to be more efficient, risk-based and outcomes-focused in our regulation of CPD compliance.”

See an executive summary of the issues being covered, or see the full issues paper.

Also see the consultation response, until 3 July.

Also see the Board’s comments.

Victorian Legal Service Board report shows that sexual harassment in the legal workplace is common

On April 1st Victorian Legal Services Commissioner, Fiona McLeay, released data showing that sexual harassment in Victorian legal workplaces is common, and has a disproportionate effect on women.

Results showed that 1 in 3 respondents had experienced workplace harassment at some point in their career. As well as this there was a significant gender imbalance in the proportions with 61% of female respondents and 12% of male respondents reporting experiencing sexual harassment in Victorian legal workplaces.

The study was carried out in 2 surveys sent in August and September of 2019, the first was sent to all Victorian legal practitioners to collect data about their experiences of sexual harassment, whilst the second was sent to principals of law practices, to collect data on how their firms manage sexual harassment.

Ms McLeay has said: “Sexual harassment affects millions of people across Australia, and it is very concerning to me that so many lawyers in Victoria have experienced this.  And this is not historic data – for a majority of people reporting sexual harassment in our survey it occurred within the last five years, and for 25%, this was in the last 12 months. Of the survey respondents who had personally experienced harassment – nearly all of them were women, over half had five or less years’ experience at the time of the most recent incident, and many were either in junior roles or were not yet fully qualified”.

Ms McLeay highlighted that the Board was developing a strategy to move forward and tackle the issue saying, “As the regulator, we will be doing everything in our power to investigate and respond to complaints about sexual harassment. We have the power to investigate individual lawyers, as well as legal workplaces, where the data shows ‘hotspots’ of sexual harassment behaviour … Ultimately it’s up to all of us to change our culture.  How we operate as lawyers – the standards we hold ourselves to, the behaviours we expect from one another, what we tolerate and refuse to tolerate – are what defines us as a profession”.