A new regulatory system for the legal profession will commence in New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria on 1 July 2015. It will create a common legal services market in NSW and Victoria encompassing more than 70% of Australian lawyers under a framework based on a Legal Profession Uniform Law (‘Uniform Law’) and Uniform Rules. The system aims to harmonise regulatory obligations while retaining local performance of regulatory functions.
The Uniform Law replaces the Legal Profession Act 2004 (NSW) and Legal Profession Act 2004 (Victoria). It was enacted in Victoria and adopted by NSW in 2014.
The Uniform Law created two bodies that were appointed in 2014. They are an inter-jurisdictional Legal Services Council and a Commissioner for Uniform Legal Services Regulation (who also acts as CEO of the Legal Services Council).
The Legal Services Council will monitor implementation of the Uniform Law and ensure its consistent application across NSW and Victoria and other jurisdictions that may join. Day to day regulation will remain the responsibility of the current NSW and Victorian regulatory bodies.
On 28 May 2015 the Commissioner for Uniform Legal Services Regulation, confirming the system would commence on 1 July 2015, released the final version of the rules to underpin its operation. See the Legal Services Council website under Uniform Law and Rules for the Uniform Law and The Legal Profession Uniform Rules including the Uniform General Rules, Uniform Admission Rules, and Uniform Conduct, Practice and Continuing Professional Development Rules for solicitors.
In a Media Release on 28 May 2015, Law Council of Australia President, Mr Duncan McConnel, said, ‘The goodwill and cooperation required to achieve the Uniform Law should not be underestimated. ….I am tremendously proud of the role the legal profession has played to help drive this process forward. ……I look forward to the day when the entire Australian legal profession operates under a consistent set of rules of conduct, practice and education when we can say we are truly a national legal profession of Australian lawyers. The approval of these rules and the impending commencement of the Uniform Law marks a significant step towards realising that goal.’
On 9 June 2015 Legal Profession Uniform Law Application Legislation Amendment Act 2015 was enacted in NSW. This Act enables the commencement of the Uniform Law scheme.
Background to reforms of the Uniform Law
An Independent Committee of Inquiry chaired by Professor Fred Hilmer (‘Hilmer report’) sowed the seed for a unified national legal professional market in Australia in 1993 by arguing for extending completion policy principles to the legal profession with the objective of removing constraints. The Law Council of Australia’s ‘Blueprint for the Structure of the Legal Profession: A National Market for Legal Services’ elaborated on the concept in 1994. The blueprint sought to ensure a strong and independent legal profession consistent with a number of objectives including: national completion policy principles apply to the legal profession, lawyers admitted in any State or Territory of Australia are able to practise law throughout Australia and existing constraints which prevent a lawyer’s right to practise without restriction throughout Australia are removed in order to facilitate the development of a national market in legal services.
The reforms were progressed further through the Council of Australian Governments (‘COAG’) in 2004 and 2009, but it was the culmination of work by the legal profession and governments of NSW and Victoria that led to the Uniform Law as a means of achieving consistency across NSW and Victoria in the way legal service and the delivery of legal services are to be regulated.
Objectives of the Uniform Law
The objectives of the Uniform Law are to promote the administration of justice and an efficient and effective Australian legal profession, by:
- providing and promoting inter-jurisdictional consistency in the law applying to the Australian legal profession; and
- ensuring lawyers are competent and maintain high ethical and professional standards in the provision of legal services; and
- enhancing the protection of clients of law practices and the protection of the public generally; and
- empowering clients of law practices to make informed choices about the services they access and the costs involved; and
- promoting regulation of the legal profession that is efficient, effective, targeted and proportionate; and
- providing a co-regulatory framework within which an appropriate level of independence of the legal profession from the executive arm of government is maintained.
Role of the Uniform Law
The Uniform Law will regulate the legal profession across the two jurisdictions, governing matters such as admissions, practising certificates trust accounts requirements, billing arrangements, continuing professional development requirements, complaints handling processes and professional discipline issues.
The NSW and Victorian regulatory bodies will still perform day to day regulatory functions, for example The Law Society of New South Wales’ continuing regulatory functions will include overseeing trust accounts and licensing and working with the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner in relation to complaints about solicitor conduct.