Every year the Victorian Bar holds a black tie dinner which is all very ritualistic and where the assembled lawyers and judges tell in jokes about each other. The Bar is, like the medical colleges, an old style protectionist trade union. And it does not like those of its brethren who criticize the union and its ways publicly. In fact if you do it you are behaving like a dog, according to Ross Gillies QC who spoke at this year’s Dinner.

Gillies told his union brothers and sisters that his “main reason for disapproving of counsel engaging in public criticism of the Bar reposes in the fact that you just don’t do it. Whether it is your own religion, whether it is your own race or whether it is your own family, you don’t turn on your own. You don’t turn on your own because it is a really canine thing to do. It is deplorable.”

So let’s extend Ross’s logic to other areas of the community. Catholics who protest against their Church’s discrimination against gays are being “canine”. Australians who accuse fellow Australians of being racist towards Muslims or Aborigines are being ‘canine’ if they write an opinion piece saying so.

Gillies justified his stance by arguing that there is an appropriate place to air dirty linen about the Bar and that is through the formal channels of ethics committees and legal disciplinary tribunals.

“There is thus no need for anyone, from a public viewpoint, to be concerned if someone doesn’t speak freely to the press about what is going on at the Bar.”

In other words, the media has no legitimate interest in exposing, for example, discrimination or restrictive economic practices of the Bar or ensuring that the Bar’s internal disciplinary processes are fair.

The Victorian Bar badly needs a PR makeover — Gillies’ contribution is evidence of that.

In Victoria, it rightly plays an important role in ensuring that justice is accorded to individuals, and many barristers make a very useful contribution to public debates about human rights and they lightly criticize the tabloid media’s patently pro victim reporting of the criminal justice system.

So the Bar has a public profile and like any institution that has a public profile it must expect that the media is a two way street. It is important that the Victorian Bar not be afraid of public debate about its role, the way it operates and, like any other professional body, be totally open to debate and criticism from its own members, even if that involves the general media taking an interest in the matter.

To seek to besmirch barristers who publicly criticize the institution to which they belong is simply absurd and one hopes that most of those in the room listening to Ross Gillies’ speech will ignore that part of his address. A robust institution is one which welcomes public critiques.

Peter Fray

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