Dr Ben Gauntlett, Disability Discrimination Commissioner has a unique pro bono story to tell. He recently spoke to Law Access about his past pro bono legal work and current opportunities for pro bono lawyers to assist people with a disability. View the Disability Discrimination Commissioner’s full video message here.
1) Before becoming Disability Discrimination Commissioner you took pro bono legal referrals through Law Access. What motivated you to dopro bono legal work?
I strongly believe that the legal profession needs to work collectively to lessen the impact of some of the imperfections in the system. I tried to do about 10% of my work as a barrister on a pro bono basis. Sometimes I did more, sometimes less but it was important to me to try and ensure the legal system was accessible. I found clients were invariably grateful if you took the time to explain the legal issues to them, even when they had low prospects of success.
2) What opportunities exist for pro bono lawyers to assist people with a disability?
4.4. million Australians live with disability and unfortunately, there is a strong link between disability and poverty. This can mean some people with disability cannot afford legal representation. People with disability can also need to negotiate difficult policy systems like the social security system or the National Disability Insurance Scheme. In dealing with legal matters, some people with disability can have difficulty communicating or understanding legal concepts. A considerate legal representative can make an enormous difference.
3) Do you have any advice for pro bono lawyers representing a client with a disability?
People with disability are not a homogenous group. If you are concerned about an issue, ask the person with disability, not their support person. Openness is the best approach. Physical and electronic access should not be assumed. Similarly, there can be challenges with some forms of communication. Instead of wondering about an issue, it is better to politely ask for the client’s opinion or view.
4) In the course of your career you have encountered various barriers to full participation in the profession as well as barriers to access the justice system. What can lawyers do to help break down these barriers?
Barriers to inclusion exist in the legal profession and the legal system. The best way to deal with barriers to inclusion is to try and assess how they affect people and why. Not every barrier is obvious. Collecting data and reviewing trends is important. So too is trying to learn from what is world’s best practice.