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UC professor receives Pro Bono Service Award at ACT Law Awards

Suzanne Lazaroo

10 September 2021: In recognition of her work founding the free Small Business Legal Advice Clinic in the ACT, the University of Canberra’s Professor Maree Sainsbury received the Pro Bono Service Award at the annual ACT Law Awards last week.

Held online this year, the Law Society’s ACT Law Awards ceremony recognises the local lawyers and legal firms who contribute to the Canberra community. ACT Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury presented the award to Professor Sainsbury, who is the Deputy Dean of the University’s Faculty of Business, Government and Law.

“I’m grateful to receive this award, especially because it recognises the wider impact of the clinic,” she said.

In 2012, Professor Sainsbury founded the Small Business Legal Advice Clinic in partnership with Legal Aid ACT, after identifying a gap in the pro bono services available to the Canberra community at the time.

The clinic offers clients free advice on relevant topics like contract issues, debt recovery, corporations law, franchising, intellectual property and tenancy. Clinic volunteers explain the legal issues faced, outline a client’s options and explore further resources with them.

“Pro bono services, like the clinic, increase access to justice for all – and we need to protect the most vulnerable members of our community,” she said.

“Small businesses contribute so much to both the community and the economy – while you might not think of them as a vulnerable group, most of the people we see are from culturally and linguistically diverse [CALD] backgrounds, often migrants who might have language difficulties and who aren’t familiar with our legal system.”

Professor Sainsbury added that many small business owners often earn below the average Australian wage (Department of Parliamentary Services, Parliament of Australia, Statistical Snapshot: Small business sector contribution to the Australia economy, 7 January 2020), and therefore they may not have the resources to engage a solicitor for advice.

“Ultimately, if we provide them with support early and effectively, it helps to avoid disputes escalating and more complicated issues arising down the track, which is in everybody’s best interests,” she said.

Professor Sainsbury’s work with the clinic has proven instrumental in introducing the University’s law students to the importance of pro bono work, while also providing them with invaluable hands-on experience.

“For those of us who have been lucky enough to attend university and graduate with a law degree, that privilege comes with an obligation to give back to society,” she said. “The Small Business Legal Advice Clinic is the only pro bono clinic focusing on small business issues in the Canberra region, and even nationally, they are rare, so this is a valuable opportunity for students who get involved.”

The clinic can currently accommodate up to eight students on placement.

“Working at the clinic really benefits the students, because they get to see how the law works in practice,” Professor Sainsbury said.

“It is difficult to get a true understanding of legal issues solely by studying individual subject areas, because the reality is that legal issues cross over many different areas of law. And then, you have to look at the larger context in which all these areas operate.”

The clinic also allows students to work with many different personalities and approaches, thoroughly equipping them for not only real world legal work, but with an understanding of the human experience of the legal system.

“It can be quite an eye-opener for students, to learn about the risks people sometimes take without really knowing what they are getting into, or how they might ignore legal problems until something becomes urgent,” Professor Sainsbury said.

Solicitors from Canberra and its surrounds volunteer at the clinic, giving students a chance to learn from and work with legal practitioners with different approaches and operating styles.

Weekly clinic sessions are held on Thursdays, and an average of five clients is seen a week – but issues arising from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have seen client bookings ramp up significantly, and the clinic is currently booked solid for the next month.

“We’ve seen small businesses really impacted by the pandemic,” Professor Sainsbury said. “Their financial vulnerability has increased, and they have to navigate more complex commercial and legal environments, with regulation around matters like tenancy and occupational health and safety changing.

“Ultimately, we aim to support our clients in a way that will help them resolve their own legal issues – which will also stand them in good stead for the future.”

To make an appointment with the Small Business Legal Advice Clinic, connect to the Legal Aid ACT Helpline.