ExpertsDirect Pro Bono: Anniversary and Interviews

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On 12 November, ExpertsDirect celebrated the second anniversary of its Pro Bono Service and partnership with the Australian Pro Bono Centre. To commemorate the date, we interviewed National Justice Project Lawyer Emma Hearne and Pro Bono Expert Dr Siva Bala about their thoughts on the service and the social impact of their pro bono work.

Dr Siva Bala is a Psychiatrist based in Broome in Western Australia. He has provided expert opinions on numerous Pro Bono cases for ExpertsDirect and, outside of his expert witness work, continues to provide psychiatric therapy to members of underserviced communities across Australia. We asked Dr Bala to reflect on his experiences as a psychiatrist and expert witness, and the social value of his work.

What does being a pro bono expert mean to you?

I strongly believe in social justice and equality and that all should have access to expert professional help. The socially disadvantaged suffer more in this regard and there is ample evidence that marginalised individuals and groups in society are more likely to engage in offending behaviour. To assist them on a pro bono basis is the collective responsibility of all professionals.

Tell us about your professional background.

I was born and raised in Sri Lanka during a civil war. This sensitised me early to human suffering. Moving to Australia as a child, I undertook my schooling and medical studies in Perth. During psychiatry training, I did a rural rotation for 12 months in Broome. Living and working with Aboriginal people and their families, I came to be acutely aware that their experience of dispossession, marginalisation, colonisation related trauma and cultural genocide had led to the downstream effects of despair, suicide, violence and social alienation with all the attendant physical and mental health problems.

There is limited access to psychiatric services in rural and remote Australia and this motivated me to focus my energies and professional work on developing and enhancing culturally secure ways of working with them. I have been working clinically and providing independent medical assessments by videolink throughout Australia for the past 10 years and have conducted over 2,000 videolinks.

Tell us about a matter you have worked on with ED Pro Bono. What were you required to comment on and what was your experience of the service process? 

I was required to comment on the extent to which systemic racism within police services in isolated areas may have contributed to a failure to respond adequately and in a timely manner to an escalating situation in the community.  Police officers have a challenging task in respectful engagement of Aboriginal people in culturally safe, particularly in rapidly evolving, situations after hours.

Do you believe that there are systemic obstacles in accessing services in your sector?

The tyranny of distance, culture and language all impede us.  The Kimberley region, where I worked for 10 years, is 2 1/2 times the size of the United Kingdom and has disproportionately few services, given the high burden of mental health issues that are complex, transgenerational and multifaceted.  We are not often aware, whether we work in health or other sectors, of our implicit biases and assumptions that impede meaningful access and engagement.  I certainly was not.

Do you believe your work with ED Pro Bono helped to service genuine need in the community?

I hope that it allowed the individuals involved to have a voice and empowered them.  It made me see how the cascading effects of grief and trauma can affect individuals and their actions.  Hopefully, it will raise the awareness of others in the same way and challenge our orthodox paradigmatic views on social problems, and how marginalised individuals become entangled in them.

Emma Hearne is a solicitor who has worked with ExpertsDirect on numerous Pro Bono matters since the service’s inception. In this interview, we ask her to reflect on what motivates her work at the National Justice Project and her experiences with ExpertsDirect Pro Bono.

What areas of law do you practice in and what attracted you to them?

The National Justice Project is a not-for-profit legal service that provides representation to the most vulnerable members of our community and uses strategic litigation and advocacy to advance human rights. We act in areas of discrimination, coronial inquests, medical negligence for Indigenous and Refugee clients, police abuse of powers and discriminatory or negligent treatment in detention, gaols and by health service providers. I have been attracted to this area of work as a way to empower and assist those who cannot otherwise afford or access representation and to try to make a change to the society we live in.

What kind of role has expert witness evidence played in the matters you have worked on?

NJP relies heavily on the use of expert witness evidence particularly in many areas of our work. For our refugee clients, expert evidence was necessary in order to advocate for them to receive the health care they required which often could not be provided on Manus and Nauru. We are further using experts in cases of medical negligence for injuries they have sustained in their time in offshore detention. For our indigenous clientele expert evidence has been crucial in coronial, police, gaol and health care discrimination and negligence cases. Some of the NJP cases have created systemic change to Australia’s legal precedent and holding governments accountable.

Why should lawyers and experts care about pro bono and low cost legal services

Without pro bono legal and expert work such change would not have been possible as there are limited organisations that can take it on. By having pro bono or low cost expert assistance, there is greater access to justice for such clients as it allows law firms to be able to finance such cases from the outset. The assistance that the ExpertsDirect pro bono scheme has provided has been incredibly valuable to NJP and our clients.

If you would like to apply for or know more about ExpertsDirect’s Pro Bono Service, please click here.

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