Lawyers are jockeying for position on what is estimated to be a long-running and expensive royal commission into institutional child abuse in Australia. But this time, it’s not just about the money.

The indefinite length of the royal commission, which is likely to run for years, will see lawyers “absolutely benefit”, says Josh Bornstein, a principal at law firm Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. “They’ll be charging top dollar and be paid top dollar, no different to any royal commission in the past 100 years,” he told Crikey.

The vast majority of the cost of the royal commission will be lawyers, says Angela Sdrinis, a partner at Ryan Carlisle Thomas. “Royal commissions aren’t called lawyers’ picnics for nothing,” she said.

“Good lawyers and good barristers are expensive. If they were not working on the royal commission they could be somewhere else earning $6000 a day. That’s an unavoidable cost.”

But the exact cost is impossible to estimate. “If it goes three years it will be cheaper than five, which will be cheaper than 10,” Bornstein said.

Some lawyers will be charging full rates to be involved, while others will be accessed using legal aid. Crikey has been told that legal aid solicitors, who brief barristers, can expect to earn $140 an hour during a royal commission, while barristers are paid a daily rate of $1150, about $230 an hour.

Their equivalents in the CBD charge three times that at least, says Bornstein, and not every victim and party involved in the royal commission will have access to legal aid lawyers. Not that cost should be a factor.

“There is no more worthy subject of a royal commission than this one,” Bronstein said. “We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world and this is a disgraceful scourge that has affected victims in terrible ways. It’s about the investment, not the cost. But lawyers do charge disgraceful amounts of money and there will be some who find it a very profitable process.”

Law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth — which said it wasn’t able to comment for this story — has traditionally acted for the Catholic Church on similar cases. A handful of smaller law firms work with smaller religious orders and churches and are likely to do defense work on the royal commission.

Lewis Holdway Lawyers supports the work of an organisation called Good Faith and Associates, which provides advocacy and support service to women and men who are survivors of abuse by clergy and religious professionals. Sdrinis says this firm, as well as her own, are experienced at plaintiff work such as this. Only a handful of firms have the specific expertise to do this type of work.

Lawyers with connections to the Catholic Church will be “clambering to assist”, according to Bornstein: “I debate this issue with lawyers who have different views to mine and who are devout Catholics. They argue the confession is sacred. I am on the opposite side of that argument.”

The public outpouring in support of a royal commission has been echoed in the legal community. For a lot of lawyers, the royal commission represents a chance to help change the structure of how the church is involved in legal matters. Many lawyers have tried to sue the church on behalf of abused children before and have been frustrated by the lack of structure, says Bornstein.

They’re angry, and many will work pro bono as a result. Bornstein says lawyers will see it as a “feather in their cap”.

“You will find with organisations like the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church, attempts to sue have been unsuccessful because there is not a proper legal entity to sue. It’s held in a property trust that is completely divorced from the supervision of priests or clergy,” he said.

“As a lawyer, you know what big business does to avoid liability. There is delay, there are PR strategies, there is setting up a code of conduct and arguing a problem is being dealt with internally, there is asset protection. But what has horrified me is that now we are seeing church organisations doing the same thing. They are behaving like Phillip Morris and James Hardie. It cuts to the quick for a lot of lawyers who can recognise the strategy to avoid civil and criminal liability, to protect assets and minimise liability to the brand.”

Peter Fray

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