AN INNOVATIVE new charity, Everyday Justice, is aiming to improve access to legal advice, particularly for regional and mobility-impaired Australians, and provide relief for overstretched community legal services.
Everyday Justice is an initiative of national law firm Mills Oakley. Commenting on the new charity, Mills Oakley CEO John Nerurker said the need for pro bono legal advice has never been greater.
“This has been a tough period for many people, and a particularly difficult time for people who can’t afford to pay for a lawyer to help them with issues like unpaid wages, mounting debts and possible eviction from rental accommodation,” Mr Nerurker said.
“The team at Mills Oakley felt that it was time to step up and take a unique approach to addressing the unmet legal needs of so many Australians. The Missing Middle Everyday Justice will provide free legal advice for the 'missing middle'.”
He said the term 'missing middle' describes the growing number of low to moderate income earners in Australia who are ineligible for means-tested Legal Aid services but are unable to afford a private lawyer.
To access the legal system, the missing middle often must make a difficult choice between incurring substantial financial hardship, self representing or abstaining from pursuing their legitimate legal claims altogether. Everyday Justice hopes to alleviate some of this undue hardship, he said.
Mr Nerurker said Everyday Justice would emphasise accessibility for clients, delivering services online and via telephone, as well as in person. Innovative legal technology solutions will ensure that vulnerable people, including those with disabilities, the elderly and those in rural, remote and regional communities have ample access to free legal assistance without the need to travel great distances to obtain it.
“During the COVID lockdowns, Mills Oakley honed the skill of providing seamless client service remotely,” Mr Nerurker said. “We are well placed to apply those lessons with Everyday Justice.”
He said Everyday Justice would provide advice on employment law, tenancy, credit and debt, bankruptcy, financial abuse, fines and infringements, human rights, environmental and other areas of public interest. Many of these practice areas have experienced a strong increase in demand since last summer’s bushfires and the ongoing coronavirus related lockdowns.
Everyday Justice will also provide a pathway for aspiring lawyers to gain the practical legal experience required for admission, offering internships to law graduates and newly qualified lawyers interested in pursuing careers in the social justice sector.
“An unfortunate consequence of the pandemic is that many firms cut back on their graduate intake,” Mr Nerurker said. “Everyday Justice will give back to the profession by providing a comprehensive training program for aspiring lawyers.”
This training program will cover all areas of the firm’s practice and provide the opportunity to help make a meaningful impact on the lives of those in need, in a supportive, stimulating and diverse learning environment, he said.
“We want to equip more young lawyers with the practical skills needed to help Australians with their everyday legal issues."
Two of the charity’s senior figures are well-credentialled in pro bono representation. Mills Oakley partner Luke Geary will chair the Everyday Justice Board and managing lawyer Amy Burton will be responsible for day-to-day pro bono operations.
Both Ms Burton and Mr Geary have been recognised for their contribution to accessible justice. Amy Burton was named Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year at the Lawyers Weekly Women in Law Awards, while Luke Geary's many accolades include Managing Partner of the Year at the Australian Law Awards, in recognition for his work at a previous firm, and Anzac of the Year for services to the legal profession and the community.
Everyday Justice will continue to work closely with the many charities supported by Mills Oakley, who will refer clients to the service.
Everyday Justice will also formally partner with The College of Law to identify suitable candidates for the internship program. Terri Mottershead, executive director of the college’s Centre for Legal Innovation, will serve on the board of Everyday Justice.
Mills Oakley partner Vera Visevic will also serve on the Board.
“Every charity needs to have roots in the community,” Mr Nerurker said. "It is vital to have a consultative approach, taking advice and seeking engagement from as wide a cross-section of stakeholders as possible. We are not here to re-invent the wheel – we are here to follow best practice and to assist as many vulnerable people as we can.”
ACCLAIM FOR PRO BONO APPROACH
The decision to launch Everyday Justice was welcomed by Australian Pro Bono Centre CEO Gabriela Christian-Hare.
"Mills Oakley is to be congratulated for establishing and investing in Everyday Justice as a vehicle through which vulnerable Australians can obtain pro bono legal support across a range of critical areas," Ms Christian-Hare said. "The charity will also help to build the next generation of lawyers committed to access to justice, the public good and community service through pro bono work."
Mr Nerurker said the launch of Everyday Justice reflected the evolution of Mills Oakley into a modern, progressive national firm. Mills Oakley has passed many milestones in the past five years, including appointing the firm’s 100th partner, crossing the $200m revenue mark and opening a Perth office to become a truly national law firm.
“We have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years," Mr Nerurker said. “But with that success and national profile comes an obligation to give back to the community in equal measure.
"While we have been active in the community for many years, it is time to step up and take our pro bono strategy to the next level. This is a coming of age moment for Mills Oakley.”