13 Sep 2014

From early 2015 the Legal Profession Uniform Law will change the way the legal profession is regulated. The Uniform Law creates a common legal services market across NSW and Victoria, encompassing almost three quarters of Australia’s lawyers. The scheme aims to harmonise regulatory obligations while retaining local performance of regulatory functions.

How will the Uniform Law affect you and your practice?

The Uniform Law will regulate the legal profession across the two jurisdictions, governing matters such as practising certificate types and conditions, maintaining and auditing of trust accounts, continuing professional development requirements, complaints handling processes, billing arrangements and professional discipline issues.

There will be some changes to regulatory obligations for practitioners and practices, including in relation to costs disclosure.

What new regulatory bodies does the Uniform Law create?

The Uniform Law creates two bodies: The Legal Services Council, and The Commissioner for Uniform Legal Services Regulation, who also acts as CEO of the Legal Services Council.

Together these bodies will set the policy framework for the new scheme and refine the way it operates by:

  • Making rules about how the scheme operates
  • Issuing guidelines and directions to local regulatory authorities to make sure the law operates consistently across jurisdictions, and
  • Advising Attorneys-General on any potential amendments

Why the need for change?

The new scheme has been introduced because providing unified laws with other jurisdictions will:

  • Reduce compliance costs for lawyers and law firms, particularly for those operating across jurisdictions
  • Harmonise consumer protections, so that consumers have the same rights and remedies available to them regardless of where they live, and
  • Provide new practical remedies for complainants.

The history of the Uniform Law

Since 2004, nearly all States and Territories have enacted their legal profession legislation on the basis of a National Model Bill. However, a single national framework for legal profession regulation was not achieved because of variations between jurisdictions. It was in this context that the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) decided to bring regulation of the legal profession onto its microeconomic and regulatory reform agenda.

Following COAG’s decision in February 2009, the National Legal Profession Reform Taskforce was appointed to make recommendations and propose draft legislation. In addition to achieving uniformity, the Taskforce agreed that the reform process provided an opportunity to enhance the clarity and accessibility of consumer protection which has since become one of the recurring themes of this process.

The Taskforce started its consultation process with the release of seven Discussion Papers in late 2009. The result was a proposed new framework for national regulation embodied in draft National Law and National Rules. These were released for a three month public consultation exercise starting in May 2010.

In November 2010, the Taskforce released an interim report which addressed, at a high level, some of the key issues raised during the consultation, and made recommendations on funding. Just before Christmas 2010, amended draft legislation was released which reflected the Taskforce’s revised views.

At its meeting on 13 February 2011, COAG “agreed in principle to settle reforms to legal profession regulation by May 2011 (with the exception of Western Australia and South Australia)”. By the end of May 2011, COAG had received a revised legal profession reform package but it was not made publicly available. Following cancellation of its 15 July meeting, COAG was expected to finalise the reforms at its meeting on 19 August. This did not eventuate and it was reported that Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory also had reservations about the scheme.

On 9 September 2011, the Commonwealth Attorney-General released the revised draft National Law following discussions between the Attorneys-General of the Commonwealth, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory.

On 19 October 2011, the Commonwealth Attorney-General announced that the new National Legal Services Board and National Legal Services Commissioner will be established in New South Wales. The Attorney-General also announced that Victoria will introduce the legislation to implement the reforms that will be replicated across participating jurisdictions.

On 3 October 2012, the Attorney-General of Queensland announced that Queensland will not participate in the national scheme.

On 5 December 2013 the New South Wales and Victorian Governments executed an Intergovernmental Agreement formalising their joint participation in the new regulatory scheme.

On 10 December 2013 the Legal Profession Uniform Law Application Bill was introduced in the Victorian Parliament. The Bill passed both Houses without amendment on 13 March 2014 and received assent on 25 March 2014.

The NSW Parliament introduced legislation applying the Legal Profession Uniform Law on 27 March 2014. The Bill passed both Houses without amendment on 13 May 2014 and received assent on 20 May 2014.

This article has been adapted from information published on the Law Society of New South Wales website.