Bullies, bastards and the land of the fair go

3 October 2016
Learn more about the Public Interest Advocacy Centre

While studying at the University of Sydney teaches you how the law should be, a stint at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) teaches you how it really is. 

Public Interest Advocacy Centre

Mike Butler and students during the course at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

The great irony of the practice of law is that it can be as lawless as a schoolyard brawl. The reality is that the law isn’t a level playing field that provides a fair go for all. It’s where the weak, vulnerable, unpopular or poor risk being singled out and mauled by the bullies of the jurisprudential schoolyard. 

PIAC is the confident kid that comes out of nowhere to step in for the weaker one who is about to have the snot knocked out of them. It’s that kid you don’t actually know – all you really know is that they’re right there for the sole reason that it’s the right thing to do. 

If you’ve ever been bullied you’ll know it isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about feeling helpless and having your dignity destroyed. This may sound a little oblique, especially if you’ve never felt that pit-of-your-guts fear of sitting in the dock of a court room or being steamrolled by a corporation or government department coming after you or your family. But coming from disadvantage, trust me, this is how it feels.

The common thread through what I’ve done and seen during my time at PIAC has been about giving strength to the weak. 

That’s meant going to court with the Homeless Persons’ Legal Service solicitor advocate to watch him stand up for the homeless man the police intend to lock up for reacting to unnecessary provocation and harassment. 

It has meant learning how PIAC is fighting back on behalf of every electricity consumer against the juggernaut electricity network businesses that have run roughshod over power prices for more than a decade now.

It’s meant watching the blind man being led into a conference room by a PIAC solicitor while I was chained to a desk researching facts on unfair dismissal, unlawful arrests and sexual assault. I can’t tell you what the blind man was there for but I know what I saw: a vulnerable person being given the dignity of legal representation. 

It also meant being part of the process of investigating a judge who gave short shrift to a disadvantaged couple trying to assert their rights against a major private healthcare provider. 

While I cannot give details of the case, my involvement in applying the principles of administrative law and participating in conference calls with senior counsel was deeply satisfying. 

Will the client win? Will they even risk pursuing it? It’s not for me to tell. But what I can say is that without PIAC’s help, these clients would not have an ice cube’s hope in hell of even entertaining the option of taking on people or companies massively richer and more powerful than themselves. 

That’s what PIAC has shown me: that the law doesn’t have to be how it is, but how it should be – a fair go for all.

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