Raising the Bar for Change
16 February 2015 at 9:56 am
Jacob Varghese uses his skills in the field of law to make a difference in the world. Varghese is the Principal in charge of Pro Bono work at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. He is this week’s Changemaker.
Working for a law firm that has made a name for itself for taking on politically sensitive cases for free, Jacob Varghese said he is inspired by being able to make real and tangible benefits to other people’s lives.
Recently the firm has been close to the headlines, representing several detained asylum seekers in their fight for settlement in Australia.
In this week’s Changemaker column Varghese shared what he enjoys about being a social justice lawyer and how Maurice Blackburn chooses its Pro Bono cases.
What is your position at the organisation and how long have you been in that role?
I am the supervising principal for the social justice practice at Maurice Blackburn. I’ve been in that role for four years. I’m also a principal in the class actions department at Maurice Blackburn.
What does your position entail?
I supervise a team of two lawyers, one paralegal and a legal assistant who work full time and exclusively on pro bono matters. Our team runs litigation in the public interest as well as coordinating the social justice work of lawyers across the firm. We assess new matters and refer them to other practitioners within the firm or, for complex and intensive matters, conduct them within the team with assistance from around the firm.
What did you do before your current position and what drew you to the job you are doing now?
I’ve worked in the class actions practice of Maurice Blackburn for eight years. Before that I had worked in the medical negligence practice of the firm and as a political advisor in Canberra. I was attracted to Maurice Blackburn because of the firm’s values, especially its commitment to social justice and to extending access to the legal system. Accordingly, it is a huge privilege to now supervise the social justice practice of the firm.
Are there any big or high profile cases you are working on at the moment that you can tell us about?
We are conducting a class action on behalf of asylum seekers who have been detained on Christmas Island and suffered injuries as a result of the alleged negligence of the Commonwealth. Over the years we have done a lot of work for asylum seekers detained in Australia. We are particularly concerned about the quality of care asylum seekers receive in detention, especially children. With this class action, we are hoping to shine a light on the inhumanity of detention as well as get compensation for our clients.
Last year we also acted for babies of asylum seekers born in Australia. We are very pleased to have contributed to a result where 113 babies and their families were released from detention into the community.
We are also running a case for a man who lost his eye in a riot at the Manus Island detention centre. We are hoping that case will demonstrate that the Australian government has a duty of care to detainees held captive in the camps on Manus Island and Nauru.
Aside from our work for asylum seekers, our firm has also taken on high profile case in many other areas. For example, last year we successfully acted for traditional owners of land in the Northern Territory who wanted to stop the construction of a nuclear dump on their land.
Why does Maurice Blackburn take on so many cases that could be seen as politically sensitive, eg representing Manus Island detainees? Are there any potentially negative consequences to this?
We take on politically sensitive matters for a couple of reasons. Our first criterion is that our pro bono work is in the public interest and promotes the values of the firm. If that sometimes means that the work is politically sensitive, then so be it. Second, we try to prioritise cases where there is a pressing need for legal representation. Often that is because other law firms turn back politically sensitive work. We pride ourselves on fighting for a fair result and not running away just because the defendant is rich or powerful.
How many pro bono cases does Maurice Blackburn take on every year? Roughly what percentage of the organisation's cases are pro bono?
We take on about a dozen major pro bono cases a year and many more small, individual matters. In our core business we run thousands of matters a year, almost all on a conditional fee basis. As a result, pro bono matters make a small percentage of our caseload. We estimate that at least 2 per cent of our lawyers’ time is on pro bono matters.
How do you decide to take on a pro bono case? What kind of things inspire you to take on a case without financial gain?
We have a social justice steering committee which approves decisions to get involved in major cases. We ask three questions. First, is the matter in public interest, according to Maurice Blackburn’s values? Second, is there a need for legal representation. That is, if we do not agree to act pro bono would the potential client be unable to pursue justice, leaving a wrong without a remedy? Third, are there reasonable prospects of achieving a successful remedy? We take cases that answer “yes” to all three questions.
In terms of applying the public interest test, the things that inspire us are the opportunities to work for the most vulnerable members of society. For example, last year it seemed obvious to us that babies and children growing up in detention we among the most vulnerable people in Australia. We felt we had to do something to help them.
Do you think other law firms should use their resources and abilities to take on more pro bono cases, in particular cases that may be seen as politically sensitive?
Each law firm has its own institutional values and has to make its own decision about how it wants to uphold and work to those values. Certainly, I think that all lawyers occupy a privileged position in our society and that we have an obligation to use that privilege to benefit the community, especially those people in the community without wealth or power.
What is it that inspires you personally to do the work that you do?
It is a privilege to be able to use my training and experience to bring real and tangible benefits to other people’s lives. I am also inspired by our clients, who are always tenacious in their pursuit of justice.
What advice do you have for other people who want to use their professional skills to help those less fortunate?
In Australia it is unfortunately very difficult for many people to access the legal system. Legal costs are very high. The risk of adverse costs dissuades many meritorious claims. Thanks to no win no fee arrangements and the lawyers prepared to offer them, there is reasonable access to the system in compensation claims. But where a remedy is not financial, or not economically substantial, too often wrongs occur without any practical recourse. Left unchecked, this undermines the community’s faith in the rule of law, our system of justice and the legal profession. The rule of law is compromised if the rich and powerful get away with unlawful and unjust conduct simply because no one has the wherewith all to challenge them.
My advice to lawyers who value the rule of law is to just get out and do pro bono work for those who otherwise could not afford representation. In doing so, lawyers should not be afraid to push the legal envelope. The law develops by bringing novel facts before courts. We should all be making sure that, in that process, courts hear stories from all walks of life, not just the lives of those willing and able to pay us.