Wednesday, 22 August 2012

'Girlfriend Mode' offends critics

How about we find a new way to stereotype gamers?

This article got a lot of people hot under the collar; a game developer used the term 'girlfriend mode' when describing a gameplay feature that made the game more accessible to non-gamers.

I think that the remarks a fairly dumb thing to say, but I don't have any problem with the stereotype itself.

I think it is fair to say that the majority of gamers (whether 90% of 55%, I don't know) are male, and certainly the most prevalent stereotype is of a fat, late-20s man on a couch with a console.

I also think that the feature the dev is talking about is a great idea. Whether it is aimed at making gamers more accessible to their partners, or making it easier for people to get into games, I think it is great.

I think, since gamers are the subject of so many stereotypes, the comment by this developer should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Also, for your viewing pleasure, I give you... World of Wifecraft."

Anyone want a free holiday to Canberra?

The ACT tourism authority is offering 500 people a free holiday to Canberra, so long as they write about it on social media.

As a heavy Facebook user (and a light twitter user) this could be awesome! Also, I have friends in Canberra who I haven't seen for ages.

Link is here. 

Monday, 20 August 2012

Typical Revenue Raising

My wife and I were driving on Sunday morning up North East Road towards the hills. On the way up, we noticed that the traffic lights at Grand Junction Road were out. There was a truck from the Traffic Management Centre which appeared to be working on one of them, and just as we passed, a police car pulled up.

We came back the same way about 30 minutes later, and there were now three police cars and two trucks. The traffic had become a bit heavier, and cars were navigating the intersection fairly slowly.

But the police were not directing traffic. They had placed temporary 25km/h signs, AND WERE ON BOTH SIDES OF THE INTERSECTION WITH RADAR GUNS.

Not directing traffic for safety, but pinging motorists who were doing a few k's over the 25 limit. Not just one, but TWO COPS had radar guns out.

Surely, safety could better be managed by standing in the middle of the intersection and directing traffic...

I can only think that the police officers were directed to raise some money on a cold, damp Sunday morning.

Barrister changes gender

This story bubbled up last week, and I thought it deserved a brief mention.

Respected barrister David Stokes is now identifying as Heather Stokes, and is continuing to practice as a barrister. She has applied for a practising certificate in her new name.

David Stokes:

Heather Stokes:

I just want to say a few things about this.

Firstly, congratulations to Heather for going ahead and doing this. It must take an amazing amount of soul-searching to make a decision like this, and kudos for sticking with it. I don't know what might motivate someone to change their gender, (although I know a few people who identify with genders other than their originals) but the stigma associated with this is massive. Well done, and best of luck to you.

Secondly, I would like to draw attention to this comment from Ralph Bonig, as quoted in that article.

"Law Society of SA president Ralph Bonig said there was "no question" Ms Stokes enjoyed her peers' support and respect. 
"Her ability to practice law has not changed from last week to this. As such, the society is as supportive of her this week as it was last week," he said."

Bravo. Such a wonderfully expressive statement that cannot possibly offend anyone, yet offers complete support to Heather. I think that Mr Bonig has struck gold in his response to this issue, and dealt with it very appropriately.

I have worked with Mr Stokes a few years ago, and I was struck by his professionalism and experience. I would not hesitate to rely on his judgement in criminal matters, whether before or after this change.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Pay with peanuts, get monkeys

My job is on the line.

I was hired to take up all the Legal Aid work that my firm does, primarily Family Law and Criminal Law. I work under close supervision of senior practitioners, who are able to assist me with any questions I have. My work is regularly reviewed by the principal and the other senior lawyers. My supervisor for Family Law no longer bothers to edit my letters unless I have specifically asked her to. My Criminal Law supervisor is in the office next door, and is only involved in my files now when I need a hand or am unsure of a process. 

The most important aspect of my employment was that I would undertake ALL the Court work for our office, meaning that the senior practitioner doesn't have to waste his time going to- and from Court. Why? Because he is paid more than me, and he makes more $$ for the firm than me. 

I was employed by my firm as a 'Law Clerk' before I got my practising certificate, and our family lawyer decided that we were losing money by doing Legal Aid Family Law. The solution? Hire someone to do exclusively Legal Aid, who isn't costing the firm money. 

It has been working out amazingly for everyone. I am covering my wages plus a bit more, so the firm is ahead. The senior practitioners are pumping out more private bills because they aren't wasting time on Legal Aid, so the firm is even further ahead. Finally, I am getting the most amazing experience under the supervision of some fantastic mentors, so I am light-years ahead. 

Then this happened. That link takes you to a letter that the Legal Services Commission has sent out to all firms offering Legal Aid. 

To summarise, "The Commission has become increasingly concerned about the number of newly admitted practitioners holding themselves out as representing clients in serious criminal cases. In fact, the Commission is being asked to assign matters direct to newly admitted practitioners as solicitor and counsel to prepare for and represent clients in Supreme and District Court trials."

As of 3 September 2012, the Commission will be assigning matters as follows:
  • Summary matters (minor matters in the Magistrates Court only) can be assigned to a junior practitioner in their first year of a restricted practising certificate;
  • Minor indictable matters (Magistrates Court or can be called up to the District Court) can only be assigned to practitioners in their 2nd year of a restricted practising certificate, and only if they are adequately supervised;
  • Major indictable matters, including anything in the District or Supreme Courts can only be dealt with by a practitioner on an unrestricted practising certificate. Junior practitioners can do specific tasks, but cannot do any Court appearances.

This severely limits what I can do. It also limits my use to the firm in preventing my supervisor from having to attend on criminal matters so he can focus on his other (more lucrative) work. 

Of the thirty- or so criminal files on my desk at any one time, probably 1/3 have a minor indictable matter attached. 

Previously, the LSC refused to grant me funding in a major indictable matter, so it is technically assigned to my supervisor, but I am doing all the work on it. On that file, however, I am supervised not only by my supervisor, but by the principal of the firm, who has recommended who we brief, how we brief, and what work needs to be done. That file has been tremendous experience for me, and was, in fact, my first District Court appearance, robes and all. 

In my private practice, I have now done pleas for firearms offences in the District Court, with very positive results. We act for a man charged with manslaughter in the District Court, and that matter has just been set down for trial. I have appeared on all of the arraignments in that matter, and have been the first point of contact in dealing with the DPP. Again, my principal is technically in charge of that file, and is supervising my every move. I have learned so much about file management, and everything that is required to actually take a file to trial.

I don't know if this is unusual, but my firm feels that its reputation depends on the work that each and every solicitor does. Therefore, they were not willing to let me send out ANY letters, or do ANY court work until they were satisfied that the letter was of high enough quality, and that I was sufficiently prepared. After all, if I screw up, it isn't the LSC that looks bad, but my firm. Therefore, the quality control aspect comes from the firm, not from the LSC. 

I say now that if I wasn't sufficiently qualified and experienced to do the work I am doing, my firm would not let me do it without significant supervision. 

If the LSC wants to salvage its reputation by increasing the quality and experience of its lawyers, here are some suggestions:
  • Pay better. If you want senior practitioners doing LSC work, pay senior practitioners rates. Hell, even if you only pay to the Magistrates' Court Scale, you will get far more firms offering Legal Aid services. At the moment, it just isn't economic to do Legal Aid if you are anything but a 1st or 2nd year lawyer!
  • Pay for more. Barristers have said to me that they don't mind doing the work for 1/2 the commercial rate, but they object to only being paid for 1/2 the work they do at 1/2 the rate. Same goes for solicitor work; pay for each necessary attendance, and each client interview if more than one is necessary, and you will find people giving much more attention to those clients.
  • Direct quality control. Audit practitioners, make sure they are being supervised adequately. Ask for statements from senior practitioners outlining the amount of supervision they give. Talk to Magistrates and find out if they have concerns about any specific practitioners. Offer accreditation courses with the LSC, funding being conditional upon either significant experience or passing an accreditation course (I don't know, like maybe a law degree...)
  • Upgrade the applications and correspondence process. This is the 21st century; I think we can probably move beyond letters now. Save paper, save time. I don't want to have to wait 4 days for a letter from the LSC to arrive telling me they won't pay for the work I have done. Use the internet! Email grants/refusals straight to the practitioner! Allow firms to apply for aid online. 
  • Liaise with Centrelink directly to get payment details for clients.
  • Answer your bloody phones! I know you want everything in writing, but if a 2 minute phone call can answer my question, we have saved 10 minutes on both sides drafting, printing, sending a letter. Plus, I know the LSC doesn't care, but if my client is in my office wanting to know if I am going to Court for him tomorrow, I don't want to wait for my fax to go off (up to 5 tries), and a letter to return.
  • Grant funding to a firm, not to an individual practitioner. Make it the responsibility of the firm to ensure that the lawyer they use is good enough.
I accept that the Commission has come under fire for paying for inexperienced solicitors to do Legal Aid work, but at the end of the day, it should be the firm's responsibility to monitor performance. 

I could keep going, and I want to rant some more about the Commission's attitude to country practitioners, but I will save that for another day.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

When do you 'feel sorry' for the other side?

We have a sticky situation at Court at the moment. There are supposed to be three prosecutors working all the time, but one of them is on maternity leave. The senior prosecutor left a few weeks ago on short notice, so he has been replaced by another senior prosecutor, but one who hasn't been in my town for very long. The third prosecutor has been on sick leave for nearly a month.

This means that one prosecutor is trying to do the work of three.

I spoke to the one prosecutor still standing this morning, who confided that she was about to physically drop from exhaustion and stress. The Court was still sitting after 7pm last NIGHT, and she hasn't got anyone else to fall back on.

If she comes down sick, she isn't going to get back up in a hurry; she is really looking worn down. And then what is going to happen?

As much as the prosecutors are always 'on the other side,' they are still our colleagues, and we can't do anything much in criminal law without them. Even if they are strenuously opposed to our position, we can still work together to sort out the issues for determination by a magistrate.

So when the prosecutors don't have time to read our letters because they are trying to prepare for two trials in one day, the whole process grinds to a halt.

I want my letters answered, I want to keep things moving, and the magistrate wants to get results, but that just can't happen until prosecution services gets enough people up here to man all the desks.

I have the greatest respect for my colleagues on the other side, but they are hamstrung by a lack of staff.

It probably goes back to the old issues of 'not enough funding.' Well, from a criminal justice perspective, you need to fund both sides of the issue if results are going to be fair, correct, and timely. It isn't fair on the victims, but it also isn't fair on the defendants.

As a solicitor primarily doing Legal Aid work, I want more funding for Legal Aid lawyers. But I also want more funding for prosecutors, because every delay on the prosecution side means more work and more appearances for me. My $245 solicitor, $245 counsel payments really don't seem that much if you are in court 5 times, and have to take updated instructions from your client 3 times, send 15 letters, 12 faxes, etc.


Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Letters to the Editor

Your esteemed writer of Miscellaneous Lawyer has just been published... sort of.

I wrote a letter to the editor of InDaily about the demise of 'Long Lunches.' Amazingly, they published it!

HERE is the link.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Legal Aid: Who gets it?

I refer to Rachel Spencer's article in InDaily on Tuesday, 7 August 2012. Well worth a read. 

I wrote back as follows:

I refer to Rachel Spencer's article about Legal Aid in InDaily, 7 August 2012.
Ms Spencer's article gives a good summary of the system for Legal Aid, and the alternatives, including Community Legal Centers and special interest legal services, such as ALRM (Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement) and Women's Legal Service.
The Legal Services Commission is, like many government departments, horribly over-worked, under-staffed and under-funded. Without wishing to criticise any of the staff there, there are serious access to justice issues involved in the process. 
Putting aside for a moment the amount of funding available or the limited types of cases 'deserving' of aid, a large issue is presently the delay in getting Aid.
All applications must be in writing. Although the LSC states that in urgent cases you can make a telephone application, they have never yet accepted that, and have always asked me to put something in writing. It is possible to fax applications through.
All applications must be accompanied by centrelink statements (if applicable) and three months of bank statements. Most banks won't give you more than one month without posting them to you, so there is a 3-4 day delay, or more if you are a country resident. 
That application is usually posted to the LSC, or faxed if there is some urgency. And then... nothing happens. There is a wait of at least two but usually more than three weeks before any response is received. Commonly I lost patience after three weeks and call up to ask if aid has been granted, only to be told 'cheque is in the mail.' That response takes another 3-4 days to get to us/the client, meaning we are more than 4 weeks in before we see anything.  
In the mean time, our client has had to front court un-represented and explain to a Magistrate why they don't have a lawyer. Worse, it is often the 2nd time in Court because of some delay, and the Magistrate starts getting testy. Understandably.  
Once aid is granted, it is a constant battle to secure further funding for reports and assessments. In many cases, a psychological or psychiatric report is necessary, either to explain a condition relevant to sentencing, or to provide the basis for a defence under the mental impairment laws.  
If we apply for funding after the client pleads guilty (maybe 3-4 appearances into a matter) we can't book the client in to see a psychologist/psychiatrist until funding is confirmed. That might be another 4 weeks and one/two appearances. Then we have to get the client a referral and an appointment to see the professional, who is usually as busy as we are. Assume another two weeks. Then that professional has to prepare the report, at which point they will send us an invoice for the funds. We can then claim the money (2 weeks for processing, paid in the next cheque run, which is once per month, so assume up to 6 weeks further delay) and then they provide the report. We then need to take instructions... 
This means that because of the time it takes to get and confirm aid, the client's matter, which could have been dealt with within a month or so, with no more than three appearances,l can take up to 6 months, with up to 10 appearances. 
The Commission's reason for those delays are usually that the file has not been sent on to the merits assessor yet, or has not yet been considered.
Rachel Spencer stated that the commission needs to be reformed. I agree, but have yet to see a plan that might work to a) reduce costs and b) improve efficiency. 
How about this: make all applications lodge-able online by registered lawyers, and make it paperless. Merge the CentreLink and LSC databases, so that with a signed consent, the LSC can see your centrelink records and confirm that you are on centrelink. Better yet, impose some legislation that allows the LSC to see your centrelink without signed consent. Finally, give the LSC a way to contact lawyers faster than by snail-mail. Hmm, email, perhaps? If the ATO can do it, why can't the LSC?

What do you think? How can we reform the LSC?

Friday, 3 August 2012

No-Shows on Legal Aid: What to do?

Most firms have a policy about what to do if your client doesn't show up to an appointment. Especially where there is a costs agreement in place, no-shows are often charged a portion of the interview cost even if they don't turn up.

Some doctors have the same practice, charging a nominal amount for a no-show.

But what about clients on Legal Aid? The Legal Services Commission policy for aid is that lawyers can't accept any more money for the work that is covered by the grant of aid. You could argue that waiting for clients to show up isn't part of the work covered, but I don't think the Commission would agree with that argument.

I have talked about this with owners of large firms who are always busy, and their policy is that if a person misses more than one appt, they cease acting for that person.

I don't think that works for everyone though, because I only just have enough work to meet my billing targets. If I turned away clients just because they missed appointments, I would never make a profit.

My policy is currently that if a client misses an appointment, I will chase them once, but if they miss another one, then it is up to them to contact me. If they haven't contacted me before Court, I just won't stand up when their matter is called on.

Usually, however, they ring me the day before Court and ask me what is happening on their file.

Today I had a client rock up two hours late for her appointment, and say "Oh, sorry I'm late. Can I see ML now?"

I was free. I had time. I could have seen her.

My secretary, (/bow in awe) sent her away after telling her that she could maybe squeeze her in to my schedule in about 2 hours more. Her view was that if I just saw her whenever she rocked up late (a perennial problem) she would always do it. Sure enough, she turned up 15 minutes early for her rescheduled appointment.

Some restaurants are charging a no-show fee, and some take a booking fee. I wonder if I could get away with asking the clients for $25.00 that we will hold on trust for them, unless they miss a booking, in which case we will bill for it. If they attend all their appointments, or cancel with notice, they get it back at the end of the matter.

This doctor has an interesting view on the matter. He argues that every missed appointment is an opportunity to get other work done, and to catch up on office tasks, or even take a break.

Sure, but that work could be done when you aren't expecting to make some money from a client, and I am a lawyer, for god's sake. I take my Friday long-lawyers-lunch very seriously! I don't need other breaks, especially not for an hour that I have blocked off for a client.


Thursday, 2 August 2012

Olympic Ads and Gold-medal tanks.

You may be aware of the Commonwealth Bank's "CAN" adds, where a bunch of people dressed up as the letters C, A and N provide various comic abuse to the hated "T" at the end.

In another version the C A and N are encouraging a bunch of Aussies to pray for the diving team. The worst one is where Toni Colette reads a poem "Ode to CAN." Seriously poor performance. I think that CommBank probably did much better with their ads aimed at things like "I WILL get a motorbike, a REAL one, if I'm allowed to."

But they really came under fire for running a terrorist gag video about setting "T" up. Video found here. Seriously, how is this funny? Do they really think that they are going to make any money by advertising like this? Sure, the "I will throw food out when it's expired; give or take a few days" ad was hilarious, and I loved the line "I will buy things online, and tell my husband I've had them for years!" But how does that convert into bank customers?

Poor effort on the "CAN" adds, CommBank, poor effort.

Suppression Orders and the higher Courts

My firm acts for a reasonably high-profile murder case where our client is alleged to have murdered another person. The details of the case are fascinating in their own right, but an interesting issue about Suppression Orders was raised recently.

Firstly, police sought a Suppression Order shortly after our client was arrested under s69A of the Evidence Act 1929 (SA). That Order was made by a Magistrate in the Magistrates Court.

The matter progressed (painfully slowly), and included a Rule 20 application for a Preliminary Examination of a police witness. After over a year in the Magistrates Court, the matter was committed to the District Court of South Australia for arraignment.

After the first two arraignments, our client noticed that his name was appearing in the list, un-suppressed. He also heard that his photo, which had been suppressed along with his name, had appeared in a local newspaper.

The Law:
The legislation setting out the procedure on a Suppression Order is the Evidence Act 1929 (SA), relevantly S69A, AB, AC and s69B.

Close perusal of that legislation gives this summary.
  • A Suppression Order can be made in any Court.
  • A copy of that Order must be sent to every 'Authorised Media Representative'
  • The Order becomes liable for review (relevantly)  "on the completion or termination of a preliminary examination;"
  • When a Suppression Order becomes liable for review, the Court that made the Order must conduct a review as soon as possible.
  • Nearly anyone (prosecutor, defendant, witnesses, media) are entitled to be heard on that review.
That is pretty much it. The rest of the legislation deals with appeals and breaches, which aren't relevant here.

So when a matter is committed for arraignment/trial, it appears that all preliminary examination is completed. Thus the Magistrate should have conducted a review on that occasion, which he didn't. 

When the matter comes to the District or Supreme Court, the Order is still in force. Or is it?

I queried why my client's name was un-redacted in the list, and was told that "The Order lapses when it is committed in a higher Court." I queried that, and no one was able to tell me where that was written in the legislation. Counsel came in two flavours; some said that it lapsed, and some said that it didn't. 

I took this matter to the registry, and was told that the Suppression Order only applied to proceedings in the Court where it was issued, IE in this case in the Magistrates Court. Again, they were unable to tell me where this was based in statute. 

Today, I spoke to a representative of the registry, who told me exactly what the process was for Suppression Orders in the District Court, and seemed to think that the lack of a review meant that it automatically lapsed. 


After I began raising a fuss about all this (our client is quite sensitive), we were contacted by the clerk to the Magistrate who made the initial Order. She said "I have been asked to contact you both, regarding the matter of *name. The court is obliged to review the suppression order placed on this file on *date. It seems that the court has overlooked doing so in the past."

I think we may have stirred up a can of worms. I think the Magistrates Court has not been reviewing ANY of their Suppression Orders, and I think that they have been unofficially lapsing contrary to the Act. In any event, I think that people are beginning to look at the issue now, and will hopefully get back to me with an answer before the trial is resolved.

This raises a final issue. The Registrar is obliged to keep a record of all Suppression Orders, and to publish that record to Authorised Media Representatives. If the Registrar unlawfully publishes that a Suppression Order has been lifted, and a Media Representative unlawfully publishes something about that person, are they liable for the offence? 

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

'More buses in the city'... well Duh!

Indaily today ran an article titled 'Scrap bus loop urges city traders,' which contrary to it's title, was not a call to move buses from the city. Instead, it was a call to replace the two current 'loop' services in the city (one every 60 minutes and one every 20 minutes) with one service running every 15 minutes.

The problem with the 'Adelaide Connector' run by Adelaide City Council is that it doesn't run frequently enough for anyone to rely on using it, and even if it did, no one knows where it goes. The problem with the '99C City Loop' run by Adelaide Metro is that it basically follows the tram route, but more slowly.

Edit: I now know that the 99C loop runs in a circle around the city, and in actual fact does NOT follow the tram route. Still, taking 40 minutes to do a loop seems a bit excessive. The Adelaide Connector seems hell-bent on providing people with access to every part of Adelaide and North Adelaide, without considering how long that would take (1 hour). The problem here seems to be that these services are trying to take in too much of the city, making it inefficient.

Honestly, I'd rather walk from Victoria Square to North Terrace than wait 20 minutes for a bus.

What really grabbed my attention in this article was this line here:
"... the ACC's aims in its recently released Integrated Movement Strategy, which calls for an increase in public transport and a reduction in the amount of cars in the city."

No. Shit.

What plan would ever call for more cars in the city? This shows the fundamental idiocracy of Local Government. It should be self-evident that we need better public transport in the city, and that bus service running every 60 minutes won't get much patronage. The fact that no one at Council has noticed that the tram extension made the 99C redundant, and that it was pointed out by a business precinct group is sad.

In an ideal world (haha) Adelaide would have a flawless system of underground rail, regular buses that were clean and efficient, and flying pigs keeping the pigeon population down.

But seriously, the biggest issues with public transport are that a) they don't run often enough, and b) they don't go where I need them. Shouldn't this be a primary focus of Adelaide Metro and the ACC?