Criminal defence lawyer Rebecca Ross champions the use of tech to improve access to justice
Rebecca Ross has nursed a passion for justice and equality since her youth, and she has kept the flame burning throughout a legal career that has seen her wear many hats – including criminal defence lawyer, principal registrar at the Local Courts in NT and now justice partnerships lead at legaltech company Immediation.
Having long observed the challenges faced by many Australians when it comes to navigating the country’s justice system, Ross is dedicated to identifying a systemic approach to improving access to justice. She believes that technology is key to this, as is sharing knowledge on the justice system.
In this interview, Ross discusses applying the momentum of changes spurred by the pandemic to long-term positive effect, law students’ innovative approaches to legal system issues and helping residents of remote locations to access the court process.
What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?
Growing up, I think I always had a passion for justice and equality. I was endlessly curious about why different circumstances lead to different results in people's lives. Philosophies of how societies are organised and leadership structures always interested me – I was particularly drawn to how to prevent those rules of a society from oppressing or discriminating against certain people. Combining that with a performing background quickly led me to advocacy work in courts, and it has fascinated me ever since.
As for my favourite part about being a lawyer, I think it’s being able to help empower others and show that laws are fundamentally here to assist society. Having worked in criminal law, many people I know or have worked with feel quite apprehensive about certain situations because they don’t understand what’s legal or what their rights are, and this can feel highly constraining. Being able to navigate the law removes a lot of the fear and uncertainty that can so often hold people back in life.
Too often we see people trapped in a legal web due to a lack of comprehension or personal circumstances outside of their control and being able to assist people to untangle themselves so they can live their lives is my favourite part of being a lawyer.
What is the most memorable case you've taken on/been involved in?
Working in private practice and subsequently in the Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, it’s been a privilege to be involved in so many memorable and meaningful cases.
One particular case that stands out was where I was representing a homeless man in the Northern Territory who on many previous accounts had been victimised by the police. The first thing he told me when I met him in the cells was that he was willing to plead guilty, without yet knowing the charge, in spite of not having done anything wrong. He was later put on severe bail conditions that, as someone suffering from decades of alcohol addiction, had him return to court in several breaches of this bail as we waited for the hearing date to argue his case.
This case was eye-opening to me. Although we eventually won and the charges were dropped, it taught me a lot about the real issues many Australians face when it comes to navigating the justice system and how far we have to come in order for justice to truly be accessible.
This was a really formative experience for me, one that inspired me to move into courts administration and then into legaltech in order to find a more systemic approach to providing greater access to justice.
What is going on at the organisation? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?
One area I’m particularly passionate about is the work we are doing to help address the issue of people in remote locations to be able to give evidence. Regional, remote and rural Australia is home to one-third of our population, yet there are huge disadvantages when it comes to distance, language barriers and infrastructure that often make it difficult for them to access the court process, or even contribute as a witness.
I believe technology has a huge role to play in bridging the access gap and enabling greater transparency in court proceedings, and am excited to see how we can increasingly facilitate this for communities across Australia.
What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so? Or what’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?
One of my proudest accomplishments was the work I did in my previous role as principal registrar at the Local NT Courts during the onset of COVID-19 and the work of my team and colleagues both in the NT and nationally. In the uncertainty of a global pandemic, everyone adopted such an agility and willingness to innovate to continue to keep justice’s wheels spinning. It was definitely a “I’ll tell the grandchildren about this one day” moment to be a part of that.
However, there is so much more to achieve. Having joined Immediation in January this year, I’ve experienced a tremendous amount of change and exposure to the speed and breadth of the legaltech movement. It is such a crucial time to make sure we use the momentum of the COVID-19 changes for long term positive changes.
What should the profession and law firms focus more on?
COVID-19 has required the legal industry to undergo 5 to 10 years’ worth of rapid technological adoption in the span of twelve months, a tectonic shift for a historically change-averse profession. Looking ahead, I think it is important for law firms, and the sector at large, to continue to adapt with these new times.
There’s a lot at stake if we don’t adapt as we are seeing a potential shrinking of the legal profession and a potential expansion of the legal industry. If we don’t broaden our scope of what a lawyer is, we will be surpassed, and perhaps rightly so. We need to focus on adapting technology as a profession instead of seeing it as a form of competitive advantage against one another or always relying on the “traditional” ways of doing things.
When it comes down to it, the legal industry is a service industry. There is an opportunity now to show how we can be more access-focused and justice-focused.
What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country’s legal industry?
There is a disconnect between the profession and the needs of the society with regard to the affordability of the legal profession, with an 80% “missing middle” not able to access aid or afford legal services. If we don’t address this need, we’ve lost sight of our true purpose.
Another pressing issue is with regard to education and knowledge of the legal system and a willingness to share that. People’s ability to advocate and be a part of civic processes is not dependent on them having a law degree or being able to afford a lawyer. Being able to broaden this awareness is a huge issue for us so we can make people understand and have access to legal processes. The law doesn’t belong to lawyers.
What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?
I’m most excited about what the legal industry is going to look like in 12 months’ time. In the last year, we have seen an unprecedented willingness as a profession to innovate and I look forward to seeing a new level of collegiality as legal professions step up like never before to say, “here’s a way we can have an accessible path forward through technology.”
I speak to a lot of law schools, and I am so impressed by the technical solutions law students are coming up with to answer the pressing issues in our legal system. It’s going to be an incredible next decade in law and I’m excited to be a part of it.