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Monday, 30 January 2023

Commencement of the 2023 Legal Year

On Monday 30 January 2023, the ACT Supreme Court hosted the annual ceremonial sitting to mark the commencement of the 2023 legal year.

2023 not only marks the ACT Law Society’s ninetieth year in operation, it is also the tenth anniversary of the current expression of this ceremony.

Ten years ago, in 2013, a decision was made to modify the opening of the legal year ceremony to be more inclusive and welcoming of all peoples, and to better reflect an increasingly diverse profession. The ceremony shifted from a church setting to be a secular ceremony, which is now held at the ACT Supreme Court.

In her speech at the ceremony, Law Society President Farzana Choudhury reflected on the many changes in the ACT legal community over the last 90 years, and our continuing work towards a more inclusive profession.

Speech by President of the ACT Law Society, Farzana Choudhury, at the Ceremony to mark the Commencement of the 2023 Legal Year

Chief Justice McCallum, other Justices, Magistrates, Attorney-General, members of the legal profession.

On behalf of the ACT Law Society, I join with our previous speakers to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples as the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet today. I pay my respects to Elders past and present, and I extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in attendance today. I acknowledge the continued survival of Aboriginal culture, language, family, and deep connection to land and waters for countless generations. I also express my sorrow for the devastating impacts of our history which continue to this day. We see these impacts in the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their communities. We see these impacts in our prisons. We must address the unjust impacts of our history, to see the full realisation of justice for the Traditional Custodians of this land.

Today we are here to mark the commencement of the legal year.

Thank you Chief Justice McCallum, Attorney-General Mr Rattenbury, and Mr Buckland, for your insights this morning.

Legal practitioners across Australia come together at the start of each year to reaffirm our commitment to the ethical and social responsibilities of our profession, and our role in upholding the rule of law.

The ceremony is also an opportunity to reflect on events in the past twelve months, and to look to the coming year.

2023 marks the ACT Law Society’s ninetieth year in operation, so it’s also an opportunity to look a little further back at how the local legal profession has changed, and has worked towards a fairer justice system.

A major change within our profession over the past 90 years is the number of women in the profession.

The ACT legal profession of 2023 looks very different from that which existed in 1933. Back in 1933 when the Law Society was first established, it comprised seven members, all men. Sixty years later, in 1993, our 600 members included just under 30 per cent women.

Now, ninety years since that small group of seven men formed the Law Society, of our three thousand plus members, 60 per cent are women.

We elected our first woman president, Anne Trimmer, almost thirty years ago, in 1995. It took 62 years to get there.

We have had a handful of women take up the position since then. I am proud be part of that group, especially as a woman of colour. I am glad to have had lawyers and law students, especially those from migrant backgrounds, share with me how encouraging it is for them to have someone who looks like me in the Law Society President position.

I celebrate our legal profession’s progress on gender. The improvements have in part been driven through the important work of organisations like the Women Lawyers Association of the ACT, the Law Society itself, and through university initiatives that support women to enter the profession. But the status quo is not enough.

More needs to be done to ensure that the profession reflects the diversity of the communities we serve, and is responsive to their needs. As an example from my own area of expertise:

  • people with disability represent around 19% of the ACT population (according to a 2018 survey),
  • people with disability are estimated to constitute up to 50% of people in prison, and
  • disability discrimination has continued to be the most common form of discrimination raised in complaints to the ACT Human Rights Commission.

While significant improvements are still needed, steps are being taken to ensure that the justice system is disability responsive. Notably, Disability Liaison Officers at ACT Courts and Tribunals, and several other justice agencies, are supporting people with disability to access legal help and court, tribunal, and human rights commission processes, and actively working together as a community of practice to identify related systemic barriers to justice.

In considering access to justice more broadly, the ACT legal profession is doing their part to help those who might not otherwise be able to afford legal assistance to understand and exercise their rights. Community legal centres, Legal Aid, and the Aboriginal Legal Service are at the forefront of this service delivery, offering free legal support in courts, tribunals, food pantries, hospitals, libraries, and community centres, to name a few locations. Many of the Society’s members deliver pro bono or low bono legal assistance through and alongside these services, as well as directly to individuals and non-profit organisations.

While we can celebrate the progress we’ve made over the Society’s 90 years of operation, we should continue to strive for improvements. The year ahead is an opportunity to do this.

To name a few areas:

  • 2023 will see the next phase in raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility. The Society has strongly advocated for raising the age over a number of years. The minimum age of criminal responsibility must be raised to 14 years as soon as possible, no exceptions.
  • We also anticipate a historic change this year as we approach a national referendum on the Voice to Parliament. We must listen to and learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the leadup to the referendum and beyond.
  • We will also continue to push for governments at both levels to increase investment in the legal assistance sector and court resourcing. This is critical to improving access to justice for all Canberrans, and particularly for the most disadvantaged in our communities.

Our legal community has a longstanding commitment to an accessible justice system.

In the year ahead, and the years to come, the Society will continue to work towards a more inclusive profession and legal system, and advocate for good law that supports fairness in the administration of justice.

May it please the court.