My legal life: Julie Bishop

Topics: Legal aid and access to justice,Personal and professional development

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  • Julie Bishop

Director, Law Centres Network

I was born and bred in Australia. I studied philosophy at Sydney University where I developed a keen interest in moral and political philosophy. I went on to take a degree in IT to use technology to improve people’s lives. In 1986 I went to Central America to use technology to assist with work on development and human rights at a time of civil war and the ‘disappearances’ of political activists. Among other IT applications, we used a messaging system (before internet or ‘www’) to put out instant alerts when someone was disappeared and found we could bring immediate international pressure which could result in the person being freed.

On my return to Australia 1989, I helped with IT at Redfern Legal Centre (which was one of the first legal centres established in the 1970s), and eventually with the National Association of Community Law Centres, the network of over 200 community legal centres. I ended up as its director for five years, after which, following an interview by Skype, I took up the post of director of the Law Centres Federation (now Network) in the UK.

I’m constantly amazed at the ever-changing legal policy environment in the UK. It’s a continuous battle to get legal aid and secure funding for Law Centres and the LCN. This diverts us from our central aim – to use legal skills to address issues arising from poverty. Funding is always short-term. Proper long-term planning is extremely difficult, both for LCN and our member Law Centres. I’m always puzzled as to why we don’t have an IOLTA scheme in the UK. They run perfectly well in the US, Canada and Australia, and provide organisations like Law Centres with independent and long-term income.

Tragically the LASPO changes have caused nine Law Centres to close. People are hit at the same time by reform to welfare and immigration law. It’s as if they’re being punished for being poor. I find it hard to understand the total lack of empathy from this government. It’s heartbreaking when people have to be told there’s no help available, particularly when you know their problem could be solved.

It’s really heartening that despite the difficult environment we’re operating in, Law Centres continue to win important strategic cases, like the recent one Islington Law Centre took about the unlawful refusal of legal aid exceptional case funding in immigration cases. It’s great when Law Centre staff are publicly acknowledged and win awards like this year’s Social Welfare LALY winner, Douglas Johnson at Sheffield Citizens Advice and Law Centre. It’s also heartening to see the way Law Centres are finding new ways to work with other agencies; working with local authorities ‘troubled families’ teams, in GP surgeries and with pre-release prisoners. So although tough, it’s exciting at the moment as we find new ways to continue providing assistance to the communities we serve.

The expansion of pro bono work and the mass participation by the entire legal sector in the Legal Walks in London and elsewhere are a clear indication of what the heart of the legal profession is really like. People don’t go in to the law to make money – they do it to promote justice. Policymakers should harness all this energy and commitment and build on it, not attack it. If they did, our democracy would be stronger and our society fairer.

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