Establishing a proper regard for the law and creating a proper professional body to protect both lawyers and clients was one of the many tasks of the newly independent state of PN G. It was not until 1986 that the Lawyers Act established a statutory body, the Papua New Guinea Law Society.
The Act sets out the functions and objectives of the Society. Not only was it to protect the public and the lawyers, it was to encourage proper conduct by lawyers. That meant establishing codes of practice, suppressing illegal, dishonourable and improper conduct, and preserving and maintaining the integrity and status of lawyers. Being admitted to the bar automatically conferred membership of the society – although, in a nice legal twist, it could not be compulsory because that would infringe the freedom of association under the Constitution. There has never yet been a refusal of membership.
Members have to pay a fee on joining and to pay for a certificate to practice, which has to be renewed annually. A certificate may be restricted or unrestricted. A restricted certificate entitles the lawyer to practice as an employee lawyer only. There are currently 287 lawyers working with restricted certificates. To work on their own a lawyer has to have held a restricted certificate for at least two years. They can then be issued an unrestricted certificate and can take the further responsibility of holding clients money on trust. There are 152 unrestricted certificates mostly held by senior partners.
Since the Law Society was created in April 1987 there have been 758 members. Currently there are 46 female lawyers practising and the numbers have been steadily increasing. The total numbers fluctuate because some no longer practise within PNG jurisdiction, or they become judges or magistrates, or they leave the law.
The Society has certain regulatory functions in addition to the issue of certificates to practice. These include the scrutiny of trust account audit reports and the setting of standards of professional conduct. It can charge its own members for it is able to appeal to a disciplinary body, the Lawyers Statutory Committee, with complaints of improper conduct by lawyers. By these means the Society is able to ensure that the public is protected and that standards are set. To ensure high standards the Society intends to promote continual legal training by organising conferences and workshops. It also supports the publication of local legal materials by providing financial support and it is attempting to publish the proceedings of conferences held to date. Future plans include the publication of materials designed to increase awareness of the law amongst the general public.
A major initiative, begun four years ago, has been the introduction of a legal aid scheme. First point of call for legal aid is the Public Solicitor’s Office. If it is not able to help, then the claimant will be referred to the Society. At the Society the first person people meet is the Secretary who helps with administrative details. In most cases legal aid will be considered and a private lawyer from the ‘pool’ will be assigned to the case.
The scheme is funded from interest accrued on trust accounts maintained by lawyers. It is mandatory for banks to forward the interest each quarter. Certain legal problems are not covered, such as adultery and enticement cases, land disputes, taxation claims, conveyancing, wills and testaments, defamation actions, election petitions and traffic offences. It may seem a long list but there are still plenty of cases which get legal aid, the most common of which are matrimonial or family matters, breaches of contract, motor vehicle injury claims and dependency claims. Once the panel has accepted the case all costs and fees are met. It is only rarely, in very big compensation cases, that any of those costs are recouped by the Society.
The Law in PNG, at twenty, feels young but maturing fast. “It is,” said one member of the Society’s council, “growing more mature in outlook and more professional.” The Society is now making proposals for Law Reform. Members of the council are represented on important government Committees. They have been expanding their activities to attend Pacific Island Law Officers meetings and regular gatherings of Australian Law Societies. All these activities have strengthened Papua New Guinea’s profile in regional and international legal forums.