The topic that everyone seems to be talking about, everywhere you turn, is access to justice.
My conscience was pricked at a cocktail party talk last year by Dr Bridgette Toy-Cronin from the University of Otago’s Legal Issues Centre. She threw down the gauntlet to a room full of sleek civil litigators, challenging them to help a broader sweep of litigants, especially those of limited means.
And then Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann threw down a mighty Chief Justice-sized gauntlet to similar effect in a number of contexts – most memorably, in a spine-tingling, emotional and personal address at a conference featuring Lady Hale and a number of leading women lawyers and judges from New Zealand.
And the president of the New Zealand Bar Association, Kate Davenport QC, has promised us all chocolate fish if we get our civil legal aid applications filed. I have no quibble whatsoever with straight-out bribery. It worked for my kids, and it works for me. (Well, I might jump slightly faster for a block of Whittaker’s Hawke’s Bay Black Doris Plum and Roasted Almond chocolate, but all chocolate is good chocolate.)
Recently, the government has proposed that undertaking pro bono work will now become a requirement for those who seek to be appointed as a QC. I have slightly mixed feelings about this. Mostly I think it is genius, but a small part of me worries that it will make the doing of good works feel slightly icky and self-interested.
So, what can team IP do to play our part?
I know that stirrings are afoot to establish an Arts Law Centre modelled on the one in Sydney, which would be amazing, but I don’t think anything formal has been established yet.
At a personal level, I have put out a few quiet feelers to friends in the creative sectors, letting them know that I may be able to assist in appropriate cases. I know that there is a freedom to do this sort of thing at the Bar because I am not accountable to partners, and yet I still feel that it is a difficult balance to get right.
Surely, though, it is a worthwhile challenge. Sometimes I feel as though our profession is slightly inadequate in terms of advancing the human condition. I felt this keenly at a patent attorney conference last year when I was chatting with someone whose partner is an endocrinologist, helping couples who are struggling with infertility. I felt it again recently when I had coffee with a colleague whose partner is an oncologist. And I feel it every time I catch up with a friend who spends her working days helping families in financial crisis.
IP law – fascinating as it is – is nothing more than a human construct, and it exists in large part in the form that it does as a result of powerful international interests who want it to be that way.
And yet IP law does have some noble ideals at its core: encouraging, rewarding and protecting creativity and innovation. It is about the remarkable fact that, purely as a result of electrical signals flying from neuron to neuron in the pitch-black caverns of the human brain, our species brings forth torrents of new creations every day. It is a commonplace yet magical alchemy to bring into existence something that has never existed before.
Perhaps the best way to re-connect with these ideals – at least from time to time – is to do our bit to assist the creative individuals who do this work, and not just the larger commercial interests that so often congeal around them.
I promise to try, anyway.