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8th Apr 2020
Wednesday 8 April 2020
My year as ALA National President
In celebration of the ALA’s 25th anniversary, some of our past National Presidents are sharing memories of their presidencies. Read their reflections below. Click on their headshots to navigate the page.
My time as National President of (then) APLA began in June 2001. I served two consecutive terms until 2003. It coincided with the height of the insurance crisis and the frenzy of tort reform that followed in its wake.
HIH (then one of Australia’s largest insurers) collapsed in May 2001, leaving many public authorities, professional associations and charitable institutions without any public liability insurance. On paper HIH had been worth $8 billion, but through aggressive growth, premium discounting and poor management it accumulated enormous contingent liabilities. These liabilities had not been properly brought to book and by 2001 HIH was in reality worthless, in fact much less than worthless.
Worst still, HIH had been a major player in the NSW, Victoria and South Australian workers’ compensation systems.
It was the largest collapse in Australia’s corporate history.
The insurance lobby blamed it all on ‘Santa Claus’ judges and ‘ambulance chasing lawyers’. Bob Carr jumped on the bandwagon, as did Joe Hockey, and before anyone could blink, ‘tort reform’ fever hit Australia with a vengeance. Commonwealth, state and territory governments quickly hit upon ‘tort reform’ as the panacea. In haste the Australian Government then commissioned a ‘review’ of the Law of Negligence in Australia. This culminated in the Ipp Report that was released on the 2 July 2002.
In the year that followed the Ipp Report, governments around Australia focused on drafting legislation to implement its recommendations.
Some years later the Royal Commission into the HIH collapse found that the poor supervision of APRA and corporate mismanagement within HIH had led to its collapse. But by then the damage had been done.
Thinking back now evokes for me the opening words from A Tale of Two Cities, ‘It was the best of times it was the worst of times …’
At that time the pressure of the tort reform campaign was intense. My role as President immediately developed into a full-time job. Every waking minute of every day was spent dealing with the media and lobbying politicians around the country.
Initially the media was all too keen to blame lawyers for the crisis when in reality lawyers had nothing to do with it. Eventually, through an immense effort by everyone in APLA, the media tide began to turn. I recall at one point a journalist from the Financial Review telling me that he felt we had ‘won the battle but would probably lose the war’. He was right.
At the start of all this Jane Staley was still CEO of APLA. I remember Jane as a person of intellect and uncommon common sense. Under Jane’s guidance APLA had developed from a small group of lawyers into an effective organisation. Without Jane, APLA would never have had the capacity to meet the challenges we faced in this period.
Jane left part way through my terms and, after a brief hiatus, Eva Scheerlinck took over her role. Eva possessed different qualities to Jane, but they were every bit as important to our effectiveness in a very turbulent time in Australia’s legal history. Eva had been our Membership and Communications Officer under Jane and had developed a good rapport with many in the media in that role. This was to prove invaluable to us throughout my terms as President.
For two years APLA produced more news output than all other law societies and associations in Australia combined. It was APLA who led the charge during the period between the HIH collapse and in the year after the Ipp Report.
I recall, in particular, three events from that time. First was a meeting with the then NSW Law Society President when, in an attempt to encourage the Society into action, I told the President what the Government would do with tort reform. His response was that ‘they would never dare’. Second was the time that I met with Ministers from each of the NSW, South Australia and Victorian Governments all in the same day. Qantas did well out of APLA back then. The third was when COAG was meeting in Sydney to discuss a national approach to reform of the law of negligence. Eva and I went to their hotel and gate-crashed the media scrum waiting for the politicians. We got to them first. Interviews with APLA, again, headlined the TV news that night.
It was stressful, it was exhausting, but it was also exhilarating. To finish off with some tortured Dickens, I still remember my two terms as APLA President as probably being ‘a far, far better thing … than I have ever done’.
Of course, the battle did not end in 2003. Tom Goudkamp succeeded me as National President and he and many others since then have been involved in countering the ongoing legacy of the HIH collapse. It continues to be fought at all levels of the legal profession around Australia. But in 2001, APLA was the sole voice.
Now, in 2019, the ALA continues to be a major player in this area. In many respects, we still provide leadership that motivates the profession nationally. ALA members throughout the country have served as Law Society and Bar Association Presidents, have been elected to government, and still continue to fight for the rights of their clients everywhere.
That is something of which we should all be proud.
Gerry Mullins (L), APLA Queensland President, presents
Rob Davis with the Queensland Civil Justice Award 2004
for his exceptional contribution to the APLA cause
I had the honour and privilege of serving as National President of the APLA (as the ALA was then known) in 2004–05. I launched my term at the National Conference in Melbourne where the APLA became the ALA, with a new logo. Our journal Plaintiff was re-named Precedent and our organisation moved into non-personal injury areas of practice, for example criminal law, to widen our sphere of influence.
It was a tumultuous year. Tort law reform, ignited by NSW Premier Carr in 2001, was still high on the political agenda. The insurers’ campaign of misinformation and exaggeration to state and territory governments regarding personal injury compensation claims was also in full swing.
The fight to rein in the unfair scope of the tort law reform was well and truly on. Hardly a day seemed to pass by without me receiving an urgent request from the media to be interviewed about the supposed explosion of personal injury compensation claims and the so-called ‘insurance crisis’. These requests generally arrived just moments before having to ‘go to air’, which was often stressful.
Some interviewers were aggressive and extremely critical of ‘greedy’ plaintiff lawyers, launching into tirades and not bothering to listen to anything I had to say. Mostly I barely managed to get a word in edgeways. Other interviewers were better informed, more circumspect and polite, and often very sympathetic to the plight of injured accident victims.
My year as National President, while often stimulating and exciting was also, at times, disheartening. With the exception of the ACT Government, the state and territory governments were clearly determined to proceed with tort law reform, no matter what.
As I reside in Sydney, where the ALA’s head office is located, I had the luxury of dedicating each Wednesday to being in its office. Eva Scheerlinck was my CEO. We worked well together. I used my time in the office to conduct multiple telephone conferences around the nation with the ALA’s state presidents, various committees and fellow board members.
(L–R) Anthony Scarcella, Ben Cochrane (ALA Legal and Policy Officer),
Tom Goudkamp, Andrew Morrison and Richard Royle at an ALA planning meeting in 2005
I was the ALA’s National President in 2005–06. One highlight was attending the National Conference in Cairns when Bernie Banton — the great advocate for asbestos victims — won our Civil Justice Award. It was a great honour to meet him and present his award. I worked with a very talented team from our head office and enjoyed the strong and spirited support of the various state directors. Eva Scheerlinck, who made a great contribution to the ALA over a number of years, was our CEO.
It was very rewarding travelling to the various state conferences and meeting with our enthusiastic members who were committed to fighting for the rights of the individuals they represented. The ALA has provided me with an excellent opportunity to learn much about the challenges faced by many of our clients throughout Australia and has also nurtured many strong friendships, which I treasure.
(L–R) Richard Faulks, John Purnell and John Little
2006–07 was a rewarding year for the ALA. Following damaging reforms nationally via the Civil Liability Acts some years earlier, we set about engaging in meaningful dialogue with federal and state governments and regulators to ensure that insurer profits on the back of these reforms were kept in balance.
We also made key inroads to develop our membership in the areas of criminal law, industrial law and human rights.
It was a privilege to host Major Michael Mori in a series of national engagements as he went about his work defending the human rights of Australian citizen David Hicks, detained in Guantanamo Bay for years without charge.
Workers' compensation was a key issue on the minds of government that year, with no fewer than four inquiries initiated, including a plan by the Commonwealth to seek national harmonisation of workers' compensation laws.
Having the opportunity to travel to every state and territory and meet ALA members was the most rewarding part of all. To witness the great work that our colleagues around the country do every day, to make life better for our clients, was certainly the pinnacle for me.
(L–R) Eva Scheerlinck (ALA CEO), Simon Morrison and Catherine Cheek
I was National President from 2008-09. I was honoured to be the first female National President and also the youngest person to take on the role. ALA members are characteristically some of the most passionate and hardworking individuals and as such I was fortunate to be working both with and for a great team of people. The support I received during my term as president was invaluable. With this support I was able to continue to lead ALA to address many of the issues that other law societies and groups tended to shy away from; highly controversial yet vitally important issues effecting the rights and freedoms of individuals nationwide and, at times, even beyond. Throughout my term as president, work continued to diversify the organisation and its membership base. To strengthen and compliment our base of dedicated personal injury practitioners, we sought to further expand our criminal law and human rights memberships as we focused on advocating for the introduction of a National Charter of Rights.... a campaign that is as equally important today as ever.
(L–R) Clara Davies, Julie Bishop (Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs) and
Eva Scheerlinck (ALA CEO)
My year (2011–12) as ALA President went far too quickly! But then when you are enjoying being part of a progressive and dynamic organisation, time flies. I was really interested to get drug law reform on the agenda and we became the first legal organisation in Australia to publicly commit to campaigning for major reform in this area of the law. The policy of prohibition has been an expensive and tragic failure, resulting in unnecessary deaths and seeing addiction treated as a criminal law problem. As President I made the point that we can and should do it better. At least decriminalising and treating drugs as a health and lifestyle issue would be a great place to start. The other milestone for me was awarding Colin McDonald QC the Civil Justice Award. Colin, a barrister in Darwin, has been a wonderful campaigner for Indigenous Australians and Australians on death row in Indonesia. But above all my memory of the year was the commitment of all our members and staff to making Australia a more just society.
Greg Barns (L) doing a media interview on behalf of the ALA in 2011
I joined the ALA in 2012 and on the occasion of my first National Conference in Adelaide in 2012, I felt an immediate acceptance and enjoyed meeting others of like mind.
There is a certain sense of homecoming in seeing the familiar faces at the national conferences, none of which I have missed since 2012. The session rooms are not filled with raging egos, but by honest and grounded practitioners, most at the peak of their practice areas, who are seeking just solutions to serious systematic inadequacies on behalf of victims, their clients.
With the unwavering support of the ALA executive and staff, this collective of legal champions has, in the ALA’s 25-year history, never shied away from the causes that must be fought for in the interests of justice and equality and in the face of often overwhelming odds. With legislation conspiring to diminish the rights of otherwise voiceless victims, it is the ALA which has served as the watchdog to call out successive governments of all persuasions to claw back on their behalf.
The ALA does more than protect its practice areas. The organisation also stands up against violations of human rights; it causes me significant pride to hear ‘our’ voice in the media from time to time, protesting against the treatment of, inter alia, refugees, whistleblowers and abuse victims. The commentary provided by the array of ALA spokespersons is unfailingly on-point and the debate would be hollow if it were absent.
In attending past-presidents’ annual dinners in recent years, I have gained insight into the ALA’s history, the motivation for its inception, the sublime calibre of its founding fathers and mothers and why the ALA’s foundations are unshakably solid. Equally, I have enjoyed the kinship, war stories and humour of these occasions.
I pay tribute to the giants who welcomed me into the ALA fold, not to name names now because to do so would cause unforgiveable omissions. The presidents and committee members during my time with the ALA are universally the finest examples of decent lawyers. The marvellous ALA staff who I relied on, and convert the members’ aims into action, deserve our profound appreciation. The ALA has not ever brimmed over with resources, but in spite of the constraints, meaningful and incredible outcomes fill its rich 25-year history.
In marking the ALA’s quarter-century, there are grounds to count the runs on the board with pride. Moving forward, the ALA’s strong and reasoned voice is needed more than ever. I am confident that the ALA, as ‘the lawyers who care’, will remain an integral force in the Australian legal and societal landscape.
Greg Phelps (second from right) with past ALA National Presidents at the
Past Presidents' Dinner in 2016
As President of the ALA for 2016–2017 (and immediate Past President for 2017–2018) I was delighted to meet with many of our members, the state branches and committees, our loyal sponsors, those at our national office and our Board, of course.
The role of President enabled me to also engage on behalf of our association in important ongoing advocacy for human rights; provide essential support for the common law and the resistance to not only direct but also creeping tort reform and infringements on civil liberties; and promote respect for the essential principle of the separation of powers.
My period as President encompassed much of the debate at that time over the Australian Human Rights Commission and the attacks on the President Gillian Triggs, hysteria over ss18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act, the public dispute between the then Attorney-General George Brandis and Solicitor-General, Justin Gleeson, the Banking Inquiry, the ASIC review of Insurance and TPD Claims, the insurance industry’s commentary on the need for lawyers, Comminsure, the ALA Report on ‘Untold Damage’ (including multiple submissions to government and senate committees), the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre crisis and much more.
My actual involvement with the ALA has spanned decades now. I was part of the Victorian Committee in the early 1990s, when we were known as APLA. Our attention then was totally directed at protecting common law rights for workers in Victoria. So many early morning meetings embraced strategies that extended to demonstrations in the street, political activity in marginal seats and by-election campaigning. We had just endured significant tort reform in personal injuries transport accidents in the 1980s, and the 1990s were mostly focused on workers’ rights.
Be proud to be a lawyer and a member of this association.
Justice is at the core of the ALA.
Protect it. Advocate for it.
On a final note, I am especially pleased that during my time as President we energised and re-engaged our colleagues in the west to re-establish a vibrant state branch in Western Australia that can boast the largest WA ALA Conference ever this year (2019).
Keep up the fight, fellow members.
Tony Kenyon (L) with Geraldine Collins (ALA Victorian Director) at National
My time as President did not see any drastic changes to our laws as has occurred during the tenure of other Presidents. For me, the highlight of my term was the opportunity to provide a more regional focus for the ALA. Practitioners too often feel that their voices are not heard, or they can’t make a difference, or they don’t have the same opportunities as their peers if they are not in the ‘big city’. During my term as President I established our Regional Ambassadors program in an attempt to remedy some of these issues. I was fortunate to be able to travel to every state and territory and meet some of our members and hear their issues. We saw record numbers of members join in our more distant branches of Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
I hope that my term as President has served as a reminder to regional practitioners that your voice does count, and you can make a difference.
(L–R) Michelle James (ALA Queensland Committee Member), Sarah Atkinson,
Sondra Vandeleur, Michaela Bortonkova and Laura Neil at Queensland Conference 2009
Celebrating our 25th anniversary has been an opportunity to take stock of the important work the ALA has done and reflect upon where our journey has taken us.
Reading these reflections it becomes very clear that those serving before me have made invaluable contributions to the fight for justice and the preservation of common law rights in Australia.
To my mind, this commitment continues to be the link that binds all ALA members.
Our role in serving the community is a privilege and I hope that reading about our achievements and efforts over the past 25 years has made each of us proud to be plaintiff lawyers and members of the ALA.
The work that our members are doing — either through the ALA or in their individual practice — makes a real and positive difference to the lives of many people. Whether we are advocating for vulnerable members of the community, fighting government or regulators, filing a compensation claim or defending the rights of an injured worker, our work makes it possible for individuals to access justice.
Looking to the future, we must build on the ALA’s unique and well-regarded standing. Our key to survival will be collaboration and adaptation to the changes that face us — much as our members have been doing for the past 25 years. Change is a certainty, and more challenges lie ahead but only through our collective efforts can we continue to protect and promote justice.
As others before me have said, 'it seems that the voice of the ALA will be needed in the future just as much as it was 25 years ago'.
(L–R) Roshana May (ALA NSW President), Nicholas Cowdery
AO, QC and Andrew Christopoulos at NSW Conference 2016