Wednesday, June 22, 2011

CRIKEY: Those who judge judges, lawyers need a lesson in depression

Here’s a great way to improve the quality of lawyers in Australia. Ensure that lawyers who want to renew their licences after five years of practice are made to sit through a rigorous psychological and psychiatric examination. They should also provide copies of all medical records.

Why? Lawyers are officers of the court. Some go on to become magistrates and judges. We need our legal profession to consist solely of stable, sane and depression-free individuals. We also need world peace, an end to all poverty and a Prime Minister worth voting for.

Two NSW magistrates have had to front up before the Parliament and explain to a bunch of politicians why their mental illness should not render them unfit to perform their duties. One wonders how many of the honourable members listening have (or should have) appointments with psychiatrists pencilled in their diaries.

This is the same Parliament whose numbers once included an opposition leader whose unfortunate gaffe led to a suicide attempt and admission to a psychiatric clinic. This traumatic roller-coaster ride has not stopped John Brogden from becoming chief executive of the Financial Services Council.

Brogden’s depression, a condition he shares with one in five of his countrymen and women, is not deemed by the financial services industry to render him incapacitated to do his job of overseeing the investment of about $1.4 trillion through superannuation, funds management and life insurance organisations. Yet for some reason, the Judicial Commission in its wisdom has decided that magistrate Brian Maloney is incapacitated after being diagnosed with bipolar II, an illness known to be very treatable with standard psychopharmacological treatments.

With respect, those who judge our judges and lawyers should understand that law is one of those professions very conducive to depression in its practitioners. Perhaps a good way to describe a lawyer’s job is to always assume the worst scenarios are going to happen and then protect his or her client from each of them. The best lawyers are almost always the ultimate pessimists. Too much positive thinking is dangerous in the legal game.

Life is especially tough for many small operators whose sources of work are drying out or legislated out of existence. These are often the lawyers prepared to do low-paying legal aid work for average punters. These are the lawyers who would struggle to pay their own hourly rate let alone the fees of the average private psychiatrist.

As magistrate Maloney told the NSW Parliament: “Interestingly, researchers have found that 40% of law students, 20% of barristers and 33% of solicitors have a mental illness. It is from this demographic that judicial officers are drawn. In the past 12 months three barristers have sadly taken their own lives. In recent years, two judges.”

So much of our criminal and civil justice system is carried out by the magistrates courts — simple traffic matters, drink-driving offences, family violence orders, debts and much more. A huge number of unrepresented persons, punters who can’t afford a lawyer and whose matter doesn’t come within legal aid guidelines, are seen by magistrates who generally bend over backwards to ensure no party is unfairly dealt with.

We need magistrates who have empathy and genuine life experience. That includes the experience of the large number of people suffering from mental illnesses who are disproportionately represented in our prisons, as parent-litigants in child protection cases and in so much of the business that comes before magistrates courts.

You’d think having a magistrate on the bench who is successfully managing mental illness would be an asset to the court. In short, if a magistrate is readily deemed incapacitated because of depression or bipolar disorder, the entire court system is potentially put at risk. And that’s enough to make anyone sick.

Words © 2011 Irfan Yusuf

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Monday, June 20, 2011

On Glorious Mackay ...

Check out this awesome website. And check out this amazing scene.

Some of you may find it hard to imagine how anyone could resist working in such an environment. And just thinking about it makes me wonder why the hell I left the place.

One of the fringe benefits of working in the community legal sector is that you actually get the time to walk outside your office, indeed to drive away from your office, at around 5:30pm in time to enjoy a place like this. Better still, you feel good about yourself because you've actually helped people who simply cannot afford to go anywhere else.

In October 2009, after I'd finished writing and publishing and promoting my book, I had made a conscious decision not to go back to private practice in the big smoke. Community sector law proved a little less generous on my bank balance, but the benefits as far as lifestyle have been superb. It has also allowed me to see and live in parts of Australia I never expected to visit even on holidays.

Surviving on $65,000 per year for putting your unrestricted practising certificate on the line may not sound like a terribly good return on a 6 year study and decade work investment. Still, if it means sitting down on a hilltop cafe overlooking this ...

... whilst avoiding the inevitable second divorce and/or impending nervous breakdown of many a partner of a metropolitan law firm, then surely the pay cut is worth it.

Stupid me stayed in this gorgeous place only 10 months. At the time I regarded Mackay as a cultural wasteland, a veritable Boganville. And yes, in some ways it truly was.

But one of the great things about Mackay was its proximity to Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays, where the view was often even more spectacular.

It was a truly pleasurable 10 months. Among the areas of QLD law I managed to discover were:

a. A mega-tribunal that dealt with just about every jurisdiction under the planet. And calling itself QCAT. Pretty funky name.

b. The horrors of the QLD child protection system, one where sadly indigenous kids are over represented.

c. The rather scary prospect of being slapped with a "peace and good behaviour order" if I wasn't nice to my neighbours.

d. The amazing work done by an army of underpaid community and social workers, disability advocates and legal aid lawyers (though they got paid much more than we at the community legal centre did).

This isn't the kind of law I even knew existed in the days when I was busy working ridiculous hours defending employers who refused to dismiss their workers properly and/or pay award entitlements.

Words & Photos © 2011 Irfan Yusuf

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