Lawyers will join doctors, plumbers and real estate agents as professions that will operate under one set of rules, following a COAG decision made in February at the request of the Commonwealth.
At a speech in Perth on 17 September, the Attorney-General (Mr McClelland) said:
Australia now operates within a vastly different legal and economic landscape to that under which the present system of legal profession regulation developed.
Australian lawyers and consumers no longer operate in just one State or Territory.
To deliver a seamless national economy we can no longer justify such disparate regulation for just one profession.
If other professions in Australia can be regulated through a simple, unified, national structure there is no reason why the Australian legal profession should be an exception.
A better approach is required if we are to remain successful in the long-term – and given the wide variety of interests involved, we must think creatively about operating together in a Federation.
Given the undeniable economic imperative, the collective political will of COAG and good will from all stakeholders, I am sure we will be able to achieve an outcome that will deliver significant tangible benefits to not only the profession, but the Australian community in general.
He inveighed against the fact that consumers, lawyers and firms have to deal with nearly 5,000 pages of regulation, and indicated he hadn’t met one lawyer that has read, let alone digested all of this regulation.
Probably that’s because most practitioners operate in one jurisdiction, and consumers are only concerned about the laws relevant to their state and territory. This is a bit of a straw man, really.
Nevertheless, a National Legal Profession Taskforce has proposed the establishment of a National Legal Services Board – a joint state and territory entity that seems a cross between the proposed National Body anticipated by the IGA for Specified Professions and the National Boards to be established under the national registration and accreditation scheme for health professionals.
The Board would be a single standard-setter for all lawyers in Australia, constituting ‘key experts from differing backgrounds including legal practice, consumer protection (whatever that constitutes!) and the regulation of professions.'
It is to deal with issues relating to admission eligibility, the granting of practising certificates, practising entitlements and conditions, the form and manner in which practise is conducted, complaints handling and discipline,
So they retain their 'relevance', state bodies (including professional bodies) could perhaps be delegated responsibility to determine whether someone was eligible for either admission or a practising certificate.
During his speech, the Attorney said:
In short, in framing new national regulations, we need to keep in mind the experience the average punter has with the system and we need to consider how we can make that better.Actually, as an ‘average punter’, I don’t think the Australian legal system is operating that badly.
A good test is to ask whether lawyers would be willing consumers of legal services.
Currently, I don’t think many would.
Nevertheless, one set of regulations from a board containing (amongst others) consumer protection experts will undoubtedly change it all.
A national scheme closer to fruition is that dealing with occupational health and safety.
As we noted earlier, WA indicated to the Workplace Ministers Ministerial Council in July that it had problems with penalty levels and right of access granted to unions under the proposed OHS package.
As the Australian reported on 22 September:
Mr Buswell (the WA Treasurer) said he supported elements of the Rudd government's reform agenda, but there was potential for unionists to do backroom deals to change the regulations over time. "Our view is that the changes the commonwealth are trying to implement are not good for Western Australia, not
good for employers nor employees in Western Australia and at this stage we're not going to be supporting it," he said.
"They're changes which we think open us up to a potential where Western Australian occupational safety and health is driven, potentially, by the sorts of backroom meetings and negotiations we've been seeing between the union movement and the government, and that's not good for Western Australia."
As we have also noted earlier, the unions aren’t necessarily thrilled with the proposed OHS package either.
The OHS package is the first real test of how the COAG executive federalism model will have to resolve disputes between stakeholders with clear and legitimate interests to protect. Unfortunately, there is no parliament to break these sort of impass.
It will be interesting to see how this pans out .... and whether the 'collective political will of COAG and good will from all stake holders' will last the distance with the creation of a national legal profession.