By creation, Equality Lawyers was designed to change the conversation on disability rights and legal services. But, the service has a clear mandate: to provide advice and representation to people with disabilities, their families and supporters. In that way, it is not any different to an everyday private legal service. But I want to have the hard conversation of what legal services for people with disabilities are right now and where I think it needs to go. Without having this conversation, offering a paid, premium legal service for people with disabilities seems a bit, out of step?
Let's talk about it.
Traditionally, people with disabilities have been a target group for legal aid services, pro bono legal services and community legal centres. This has been an appropriate approach because people with disabilities are known to be disproportionately affected by financial hardship. Even though equal opportunity is slowly becoming a reality for people with disabilities, these models of legal services need to continue to ensure people with disabilities are afforded access to justice. Equality Lawyers strongly supports the vital work of all legal aid, community and pro bono legal services across Australia.
If a person with a disability or their family wants to choose a lawyer (i.e. if they don't qualify for legal aid or pro bono legal services), they technically have the same choices as everyone else: go to the local suburban law firm. In my experience as a lawyer and disabled person, there are two common issues with that:
lack of expert knowledge on disability-related issues.
We all know that people with disabilities and their families need general legal services. They need wills, have residential tenancies issues and consumer complaints. When they need to talk to a lawyer about those issues, the lawyer's office needs to be accessible, the lawyer's attitude needs to be inclusive, and the lawyer's understanding needs to appreciate the intergenerational experience of disability in Australia. On top of the common legal issues, people with disabilities are likely to have specific, disability-related issues. The NDIS is a great example, but there are other instances like underused equal opportunity laws and sometimes overused guardianship and administration laws. Practising in these areas requires expertise beyond generalist legal knowledge. Oh, and providing those expert services still requires an accessible and inclusive approach.
You can see how the current offerings on the private legal market may struggle to keep up with the demand of a growing clientele who want and deserve more than they are getting. This is where Equality Lawyers steps in. I didn't create EQL to be an alternative to legal aid or pro bono legal services. People who cannot or do not want to pay for legal services should always approach those services first. Equality Lawyers is a premium offering to people with disabilities and their families who are already paying for legal services or not accessing legal services because they can't find an accessible and expert option. This offering is built on three principles:
People with disabilities have the right to choose who their lawyer is. That choice should not be whittled down by a lack of inclusive services offered or lawyers not having an understanding of disability.
Private legal services are expected to be outstanding; attentive, focused and usually provided is an impressive setting. This is a general market expectation of legal services from most people, and I hope it will become the expectation from people with disabilities.
Providing an expert legal service on issues that specifically concern people with disabilities is paramount. These are often not topics taught at law schools but have strong ties in civil, administrative and human rights law. Private legal services offer unique agility to present expert knowledge to the market. I mentioned earlier examples of expertise like the NDIS, equal opportunity and guardianship laws.
Can you feel the conversation starting to shift? I hope so.
Starting with me, but hopefully, with many others lawyers soon, premium legal services that are accessible and inclusive of people with disabilities will become a standard market experience. I hope people with disabilities will also appreciate the complimentary offering of private legal services to their suite of choice when they next need a lawyer.