This article was co-authored with Melissa Hanna, Mary-Frances Murphy and Liam Mackay.
At Norton Rose Fulbright Australia (NRFA), it is our privilege to be able to use our specialist legal skills to make a positive social impact. Pro bono has been part of our firm’s cultural make-up and community spirit for many years and is embedded in our business.
During 2023, our lawyers completed over 25,000 hours of pro bono legal work. The focus of the Pro Bono practice group has been to continue to build our targeted pro bono strategy to ensure that we are making a genuine social impact. In doing so, we are increasing our contribution in the community, building deep and impactful client relationships, and enabling our lawyers to develop their legal skills.
Our Pro Bono practice group has driven work in our strategic impact pillars of environment & sustainability, mental health & disability, international human rights, and supporting people who have experienced financial abuse and vulnerable consumers. In addition, we have a particular focus on projects that benefit First Nations communities, strategic litigation opportunities that seek to deliver positive social change, law reform and policy work, and harnessing new technologies and services to maximise access to justice.
Our Pro Bono practice group is led by national Pro Bono Partner, Chris Owen, and all our impact pillars and focus areas complement NRFA’s broader strategic focus on Environment, Social and Governance (ESG). Businesses and governments throughout the world are facing enormous public and regulatory pressure to address a vast array of issues relating to ESG, which is transforming society from a global to a local level. Every institution needs the right guidance to manage risk, grasp opportunities and navigate change. This year, Chris Owen has spoken at various conferences regarding shaping law and policy in the ESG space. You can read more about how ESG intersects with every area of business here.
Below are some of the key highlights of the work that we have done to support our pro bono clients under our pro bono impact pillars.
Chris Owen presenting at the 2023 Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference in Brisbane.
Environment and sustainability
Our pro bono work for organisations working towards preserving our environment and biodiversity supports our firm’s strategic priority to advance sustainable development and support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Key projects for 2023 include:
- The Kullilli Bulloo River Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC (Kullilli). The Kullilli people are one of the Traditional Custodians in far south-west Queensland, and are native title holders of approximately 29,600km² of land. Kullilli requested our assistance to acquire the pastoral lease to Thargomindah Station, which is within the external boundary of their native title determination. This landmark property acquisition was secured through an innovative finance partnership underpinned by carbon farming and is a first-of-its-kind for native title holders in far-west Queensland. Being able to acquire 47,100 hectares of their traditional lands is a significant outcome for the Kullilli people, most of whom were forcibly removed from their lands (including Thargomindah Station) between the 1800s up until the late 1960s. Thargomindah Station is a place of cultural significance for the Kullilli people and as Director Cassandra Stevens said ‘the Kullilli people look forward to implementing our traditional knowledge alongside innovative land management and sustainable agricultural practices to regenerate native forest and heal Country’. Multiple offices and teams assisted Kullilli on this project, which will continue into 2024;
- Continuing to provide pro bono support to the World Wide Fund for Nature Australia (WWF Australia). We have historically supported WWF Australia on many pro bono matters, including WWF Australia’s recent Net Zero and Cities of Tomorrow Challenges;
- Supporting First Nations organisations who are undertaking carbon projects and representing traditional owner groups in their engagement with the carbon market. In particular, for a number of years we have continued to provide legal advice to a First Nations not-for-profit organisation, Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Northern Territory (ALFA (NT)) on matters relating to the carbon market such as the sale of ACCUs (Australian Carbon Credit Units) generated by savanna burning projects. ALFA (NT) was created by Aboriginal landowners to support their engagement in the carbon industry by managing land according to First Nations land and fire management practices; and
- With the assistance of various teams, the Pro Bono team undertook two comprehensive research projects for a large not-for-profit organisation focused on environmental conservation and global reforestation, One Tree Planted. One Tree Planted makes significant positive impacts around the world by planting trees to restore forests and habitats for biodiversity. As co-ordinating firm, our Pro Bono team facilitated the research projects between NRF offices and jurisdictions, as well as other law firms from around the world. The projects involved compiling drone regulations and ESG-related disclosure requirements from each country into guides for One Tree Planted staff. These guides are essential for One Tree Planted staff, enabling them to understand the relevant laws and regulations in each country in which they plant trees.
Mental health and disability
Our work in the mental health space and the disability space has produced many positive results for individuals suffering from poor mental health or living with disabilities, as well as for organisations who provide support services. Key highlights include:
- We have continued to strengthen our relationship with Suicide Prevention Australia (SPA) in 2023 by supporting them with several matters. Notably, we assisted them by drafting a proposed federal Suicide Prevention Act, aimed at ensuring government agencies focus on reducing suicide risk. In partnership with an advisory firm also acting on a pro bono basis, we then supported SPA in developing an advocacy strategy to lobby the Federal Government to introduce these important mental health reforms. We also ran a legal training program for SPA staff and their member organisations to build capacity and resilience in the suicide prevention sector;
- We have established a strong relationship with Queensland Advocacy for Inclusion (QAI) assisting them with several pieces of advice, including but not limited to matters relating to the rights of people with a disability and how that interacts with the certain legislation, in particular the Human Rights Act 2019 (Cth) and the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (Qld);
- Our continued support of Ruah Community Services (Ruah) includes assisting them with the many legal aspects of the planning for the new purpose-built, state-of-the-art building, the Ruah Centre for Women and Children in Western Australia, merger advice and negotiating a lease agreement. Ruah provides multifaceted support to vulnerable and disadvantaged people in Western Australia, including those experiencing mental health challenges, homelessness, and family and domestic violence; and
- We are proud to have provided ongoing support to NV Access Limited (NV Access). NV Access provides enormous benefits to people that are blind or visually impaired. Our work over the years has been undertaken by many practice groups within the firm and has contributed to the growth of their software program and NV Access more broadly.
International human rights
Throughout 2023, we supported a wide range of international human rights organisations. Notably, we prepared submissions for one of Australia’s leading human rights and civil liberties organisations, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties for the United Nations’ Special Committee visit to Australia for the prevention of torture. The submissions focused on asylum seeker policy, the implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture in Australia and rates of First Nations incarceration.
We have also continued in our support of the Human Rights Law Centre in 2023 by drafting case notes on significant human rights case law for their website and drafting their anti-bribery and anti-corruption policies.
In addition to sending pro bono graduates on secondment to various refugee-based community legal centres, our lawyers have also staffed various legal clinics to assist refugees and asylum seekers prepare applications for humanitarian visas. Specifically, throughout 2023, our lawyers dedicated over 2,899 hours to assist refugees with visa applications through clinics, secondments and individual matters. We will continue to support refugees and their families with visa applications in 2024.
We also advise not-for-profit organisations who provide post-settlement support to refugees. This support is vital for refugees to successfully settle into Australian communities. For example, we have provided significant support to Settlement Services International (SSI). SSI deliver a range of services to support individuals, families and children from diverse backgrounds, including settlement support, disability programs, community engagement initiatives and training and employment pathways.
We have continued our strong pro bono relationship with Anti-Slavery Australia (ASA) throughout 2023. We have assisted with various key projects, including a comprehensive research brief on Australia’s human trafficking visa framework. This work assisted ASA to better advocate for more inclusive and protective visa regimes in Australia.
Other key mandates under our modern slavery focus area include:
- Co-hosting a civil society round table event in our Melbourne office for the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Professor Tomoya Obokata, together with the Human Rights Law Centre. We have agreed to host Professor Obokata again when he returns to Australia in 2024 on an official visit to report on modern slavery issues in Australia; and
- We have also collaborated with the Clean Energy Council to research and compile a report that raises awareness of modern slavery across the clean energy industry. That report also outlines several strategies and actions that the industry can take to eliminate modern slavery from clean energy supply chains.
Financial abuse and vulnerable consumers
In 2023, the Pro Bono practice group focused on building a standalone focus area for financial abuse and vulnerable consumers. We established new client relationships with the Centre for Women's Economic Safety (CWES), Consumer Credit Legal Service (WA) (CCLSWA) and the Consumer Action Law Centre, and we have also published an article that you can read here which looks at how to support the fight against financial abuse. Key pieces of work undertaken included:
- Supporting the CCLSWA to conduct a roundtable event with key stakeholders from the financial services industry, government and the community sector to identify and discuss systemic barriers women face when navigating intimate partner financial abuse. The event has led to the development of a Western Australian (WA) chapter of the national Economic Abuse Reference Group. We will continue to work with CCLSWA and support the WA Economic Abuse Reference Group throughout 2024;
- Drafting best practice terms and conditions for banks that outline that financial abuse will not be tolerated in their products. These draft terms and conditions will be used by CWES to advocate for ‘safety by design’ principles to be implemented by banks into their products. We provided CWES with advice on how the financial services sector could reimagine mortgages to make them safer for victim/survivors of financial abuse; and
- Developing the skills of NRFA lawyers to represent victim/survivors of elder financial abuse. For example, this year we assisted three separate victim/survivors of financial elder abuse to reach either a significant financial settlement or receive a successful court outcome.
The CCLSWA Roundtable event, held in Perth.
Our Pro Bono practice group invested significant resources in 2023 on providing legal education to both the firm and the community surrounding legal issues faced by First Nations communities. This included providing education around the legal aspects of the Voice to Parliament, which involved an internal panel, as well as two articles that you can read here and here. Our Pro Bono practice group published an article that highlighted the issues of culture washing, and how to best mitigate against it. Our team also published an article that considered the important role First Nations cultural practices and laws can have in regulating the art industry.
In conjunction with the launch of our Stretch Reconciliation Action Plan 2022-2025, we have made a commitment to ensure that at least 10% of our pro bono work contributes to First Nations communities. In addition to those First Nations matters already described, other key matters included:
- Preparing a toolkit for Thirrili staff and their clients who have been impacted by an unexpected death in their family. This toolkit will assist First Nations people impacted by a suicide to navigate the coronial process and explain how their cultural beliefs and practices can be incorporated into an inquest to help mitigate secondary trauma from the process. This project will continue into 2024;
- Providing the Australian Human Rights Commission with a comprehensive statutory review of legislation in Queensland that impacts on traditional owners in respect of native title, cultural heritage, land rights and human rights;
- Preparing a corporate governance guide to assist the National Apology Foundation’s personnel comply with their constitution and statutory requirements; and
- Supporting a First Nations client in preparing a submission to the Yoorrook Justice Commission, the first formal truth-telling process into historical and ongoing injustices experienced by First Peoples in Victoria.
|Coby Foster, Erin Lang (CEO Reconciliation QLD) and Gavin Scott hosting a National Reconciliation Week morning tea in support of the Voice in the Brisbane office.
| Internal Ask Anything about the Voice stalls in the
Brisbane and Perth offices.
Harnessing new technologies and services to maximise access to justice
We have continued to build upon our strong relationship with Justice Connect, a leading community legal centre in NSW and Victoria. Our volunteer lawyers have assisted with the development of their innovative programs to improve their intake processes, with the ultimate aim to improve access to justice. The Justice Connect Answers service provides help-seekers a digital platform to ask qualified lawyers for advice using a forum-style online format. We have also assisted with the Justice Connect Tag program, whereby our lawyers assist Justice Connect by training and developing their AI model.
We have also assisted Housing All Australians (HAA) with various pieces of legal advice. HAA aims to use the resources of the private sector to develop strategies, take actions and raise awareness in respect to the fundamental human need for shelter. Our NRFA teams have assisted, and continue to assist, HAA to develop their Affordable Housing Register, an important aspect compliance piece of their Progressive Residential Affordability Development Solution model. This will change the game by unlocking private sector capital (not government) in the delivery of affordable Housing.
As artificial intelligence becomes more prominent in the legal industry, the Pro Bono practice group is seeking out more opportunities to support legal innovation in the community legal sector. For example, in 2023, the Pro Bono team established a relationship with Anika Legal, a free online legal service to assist Victorian renters. Our Pro Bono team has also recently written an education piece exploring artificial intelligence’s impact on access to justice and the legal system.
Pro bono secondments
As part of cultivating a strong pro bono culture among junior lawyers at our firm, our graduate lawyers are able to undertake a pro bono secondment to one of our many community legal centre partners as part of their graduate program. In 2023, our graduate lawyers were seconded to ten of our community legal centre partners across the nation, including, but not limited to, the Human Rights Law Centre, Anti-Slavery Australia, Caxton Legal Centre, Public Interest Advocacy Centre and Refugee Advice and Casework Service.
In addition to these opportunities for our graduates, we also provide opportunities for lawyers across all levels to undertake a secondment at different legal services across Australia. For example, these have included the following:
- An Associate was seconded to Queensland Advocacy for Inclusion for three months to support their disability practice;
- A Senior Associate began a secondment one day per week to Anika Legal to oversee legal work completed by law student volunteers;
- In June, an Associate and Senior Associate completed a secondment in Fiji to work on a collaborative project to assist Pacific nations with climate change initiatives. This Pro Bono Project is in collaboration with four other Australian law firms, as well as local Fijian lawyers and organisations. As we move into 2024, we have the opportunity to work alongside the Fiji Law Society to set up a pro bono regime in Fiji and expand the project work into Samoa and Tonga. This provides an excellent example of how one pro bono secondment can establish strong relationships, not only with Australian community organisations, but also with our international partners; and
- In October, a Graduate and Senior Associate were seconded to the Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Women’s Resource Centre in Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia, to assist with the re-establishment of their family violence clinic following devastating floods in the region in January 2023. This secondment has forged strong relationships in the local Fitzroy Crossing community and we will continue to scope new pro bono opportunities in the region in 2024.
The Pro Bono practice group was proud to be recognised by multiple awards schemes throughout 2023. Our highest honour was being awarded the Best Pro Bono/Volunteering Program at the Australian Workplace Giving Awards. We were also shortlisted as a finalist for the Pro Bono Program of the Year at the LawyersWeekly Australian Law Awards and the Attorney General’s Community Service Law Awards (Western Australia). Our firm was also considered for a global ESG award, the IJ Global ESG Awards.
It is also very rewarding to receive positive feedback from our pro bono clients. Here’s a snapshot of that feedback:
- We would like to express our sincere thanks to all the hard-working staff at Norton Rose Fulbright. Your excellent representation, professionalism, & strong work ethic have provided us with a very positive outcome.
- It really means a lot to me personally, and to our organisation, to know that one of the firms I use has embraced the concept of pro bono. Your efforts at building a strategic pillar in the firm’s culture are obviously showing success. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
- I saw yesterday that NRF had won the 2023 Australian Workplace Giving Award for having the Best Pro Bono / Volunteering Program. As the grateful beneficiary of those services, I wanted to pass on my thanks on behalf of the Board and our organisation. We’re also reassured to hear that you’re the best pro bono firm – so we made a good choice! Thanks again – we look forward to continuing the great relationship with NRF.
Bridget Scougall and Mary-Frances Murphy receiving the Workplace Giving Award for Best Pro Bono/Volunteering Program on behalf of the Pro Bono team in Sydney.