Couch case casts lawyers in different light

A number of New Zealand law firms have taken their lead from Australian, British and US practices where there is a long tradition of pro bono work.

It is common knowledge lawyers have as much credibility among the public as used car salesmen.

There are numerous examples of some being a venal and mercenary bunch driven by greed and avarice, whose price gouging  knows no bounds. 

Who else could charge anything from $350 to $1000 for an hour’s consultation without batting an eyelid?

But occasionally, just occasionally, something comes along to challenge our perceptions of them, such as Susan Couch’s compensation claim, settled last night.

The sole survivor of William Bell’s murderous rampage at the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA has been battling for 11 years to get compensation from the Corrections Department.

She was left permanently brain damaged by Bell who was on parole after serving five years in jail for aggravated robbery.

Since then she has lived on an invalid’s benefit in rented accommodation with her son, while seeking $500,000 in exemplary damages from the Corrections department.

It would be no exaggeration to say the government department shamelessly blocked her every move to get anything as a result of its failure to adequately supervise Bell.

And, as NBR ONLINE revealed some weeks back, it spent almost half a million dollars of taxpayer money in legal action doing just that.

The sledgehammer tactics should have crushed her, but Corrections wasn’t counting on the white knight who came to her aid.

For eight years lawyer Brian Henry argued her case in the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

During this time he racked up legal costs of at least $150,000.

But here’s the thing: Mr Henry has never charged Ms Couch a cent for his marathon effort in shaming Corrections into owning up to its negligence.

Now, it seems, his great deeds have paid off for her, with Corrections caving in.

Garth McVicar of Sensible Sentencing is in awe of what Mr Henry has done.

“Sue has been hindered, obstructed and blocked at every step of the way and if it was not for the goodness of Brian Henry in taking this case pro bono the Crown would have got away with blatant abuse of power.”

Mr Henry is clearly owed a debt of thanks by all and sundry and may force some of us to reappraise our opinions of lawyers.

Especially when the pro bono work of many others is taken into consideration.

There has always been a coterie of lawyers like Mr Henry doing God’s work, but now its almost become de rigeur for major law firms to step up to the mark.

Russell McVeagh, for one, says it takes its social responsibilities very seriously and has been providing pro bono assistance for much of the firm’s history.

“The motivation is not to seek publicity or try to look good for our clients,” says the blurb on its website.

“Members of the firm genuinely want to give back and take a wider responsibility for the community in which we work and live.”

The law firm says it gives free legal representation and advice to a multitude of organisations which include community law centres, Cure Kids, Auckland Women’s Refuge Trust, World Vision, Breast Cancer Research Trust and the South Auckland Health Foundation.

Bell Gully is another convert to the pro bono cause and is now into its fourth year of a programme providing free or discounted legal assistance to worthy causes.

It’s work falls into three categories:

  1. Free, for clients who would otherwise be denied access to justice because they have no means to pay for it.
  2. Discounted, for non-government and charitable organisations with funding and other support from third parties.
  3. Free or discounted, for limited art, culture, heritage, sports and recreation groups and individuals who merit pro bono support.

Chairman Roger Partridge says the firm has “an annual pro bono budget of $1 million fee equivalent and has committed a further $200,000 in cash and $200,000 in pro bono legal services towards rebuilding Christchurch”.

Mr Partridge says a significant proportion of its pro bono work is directed at three local community law centres.

“Every partner and member of staff is encouraged to get involved in pro bono work, with full fee credit given to all legal staff for at least 25 hours of pro bono work each year.

“The reality is that many receive fee credit for significantly more pro bono time,” he said.

It seems a number of New Zealand law firms have taken their lead from Australian, British and US practices where there is a longer tradition of pro bono work.

It’s a practice which is already well entrenched in Australia where a national pro bono resource centre has a benchmark target of at least 35 hours of pro bono work per lawyer per year.

rvaughan@nbr.co.nz

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