20 February 2020

What social justice means to me

Today is World Day of Social Justice.  What precisely ‘social justice’ means is debateable[1] but inherent to it are the concepts of fairness and equality, removing barriers to allow the full participation of everyone in society.[2]  It is based on the recognition of the inherent value of the human person and our wellbeing - human dignity.[3]  It often involves providing equal access to health care, housing, employment and education.  And it requires equal access to the law.

I am 42, I have not known an Australia without public housing, public education or Medicare.  I grew up in a low income, single parent family.  Public housing gave me a home, free health care gave me a healthy life and public education allowed me to join a profession I had wanted to be a part of since I was 14.  Social justice gave me opportunities that might otherwise have been denied yet it sadly remains inaccessible to all Australians.  Oft times the law can provide a remedy but to do so it needs to be accessible.

Recently I have attended a number of 40th anniversary celebrations for community legal centres (CLCs).  I have not known an Australia without CLCs.  They sit on the front line of access to justice and much of the pro bono work done by law firms could not be done without them.  The pro bono practices of law firms too, however, are vital and it is notable that Australian lawyers are second in the world in the number of pro bono hours provided.[4]  Together, lawyers with purpose assist in improving social justice, for example by ensuring access to proper healthcare for asylum seekers, preventing homelessness by defending older persons in cases of elder abuse and ensuring people are properly paid for work by making underpayments claims.

Law firms also do more than just pro bono legal work, their volunteering and fundraising programs also have impact in improving access to social justice.  Mentoring programs like those with the Australian Business and Community Network give students from disadvantaged schools access to people and networks they might not otherwise interact with opening employment and education possibilities previously thought outside their reach.  Volunteering to feed people who are homeless, collecting clothes for organisations like Fitted for Work to assist women with job seeking and donating unused computer equipment to schools in Africa are further examples.

To me social justice is about giving everyone a fair go.  It means a lot to me that I got one and can be a part of giving that chance to others too.

[1] See for example the summary in National Pro Bono Centre, ‘Occasional Paper: What is Social Justice?’, October 2011.
[2] The Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘Social Justice’ as: “a concept of justice which requires there to be a fundamental fairness in the way in which individuals can be active and productive participants in a society which thus enables its individual members to participate fully.”  The UN states: ‘We uphold the principles of social justice when we promote gender equality or the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants. We advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability.’ United Nations, World Day of Social Justice <https://www.un.org/en/events/socialjusticeday/>.
[3] National Pro Bono Centre, ‘Occasional Paper: What is Social Justice?’, October 2011, 15.
[4] The Lawyers Weekly Show, ‘Finding New Ways to Undertake Pro Bono Legal Work’, 17 January 2020, <https://www.lawyersweekly.com.au/podcast/27280-finding-new-ways-to-undertake-pro-bono-legal-work?utm_source=Weekly+Round-Up+of+Pro+Bono+in+the+News&utm_campaign=29795a18eb-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_04_05_01_19_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_79d0444d05-29795a18eb-311452913>.

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Nathan Kennedy

Nathan has over 20 years' experience as an insurance lawyer advising insurers on CTP litigation and liability claims.