Sue Bottrell was first a speech pathologist who worked with remote Indigenous communities
Sue Bottrell took a long path to law, having first kicked off her working life as a speech pathologist who worked with remote Indigenous communities and special education centres. She then transitioned to health and safety-related work.
She finally began her legal career as a health and safety specialist at 39 – a personal experience that she says offers her a different perspective of the law. As legal counsel at contractor and safety management solution LinkSafe, Bottrell is a strong advocate of legislative reform in the area of health and safety law.
In this interview, Bottrell talks about leading her own legal practice, being a thorn in the side of regulators and the courts, recognising professional boundaries, and running her own sustainable farm.
What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?
To be honest, I stepped into a legal career in an unexpected way. I joined the workforce as a speech pathologist that worked across Far North Queensland and the Gulf of Carpentaria in remote Indigenous communities and special education centres. Soon after, I worked in the health and safety industry with a safety regulator, and have been consulting for 20 years.
At the age of 39, I made a career jump into law. My personal experience gives me a different perspective of the law, as I look at the industry through 39 years of life experience first, followed by applying legal principles. I truly believe that having experienced my life outside of the industry provided a crucial perspective shift that has been greatly implemented into my career as a health and safety lawyer. At the end of the day, it is critical to understand how the law works on the ground with real people from all walks of life, in real workplaces.
I cherish being part of workplaces and dealing with the day-to-day safety issues that they face and solving them in a way that makes the law work. In other words, transitioning the laws of safety from the legislation to the common people who need them the most.
What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?
I run my own legal practice with a specialised focus on the legal obligations between those who hire contractors and the contractors they hire in respect of health and safety. I work hard to unravel the aspects of law that are commonly misunderstood by the general population and my firm aims to simplify the management of contractor safety for businesses that hire contractors, which is pretty much everyone.
I also advocate for legislative reform in this area of law, as the current law creates unnecessary complexities – ultimately increasing labour costs as well as reducing workplace productivity without any positive impact on safety.
What tech-related initiatives adopted by the firm, if any, are you most excited about?
I currently work as a consultant lawyer for LinkSafe, a holistic contractor and safety management solution working with small to large businesses Australia-wide. LinkSafe clients are supported with a robust and reliable software platform, legal expertise and advice as well as representation when dealing with regulators, making them the leaders in their specific field.
Our aim is to prevent LinkSafe clients from wasting their time and money on overly complex contractor safety management, but to ensure their systems are simple and easy to apply. LinkSafe ensures that businesses effectively manage legal liability in the simplest way possible, while improving their relationship with contractors. This healthy combination leads to better safety outcomes and benefits both parties in the long run. To my knowledge, LinkSafe is the only online contractor safety management solution that offers this total solution to its clients.
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?
Over the last year, I am most proud of continuing to be a thorn in the side of regulators and the courts in ensuring that this area of law is better understood and properly regulated. In this day and age, we continue to notice baffling enforcement activity by regulators that simply does not align with the precedent set by the High Court, and we continue to experience troubling decisions out of lower courts that also do not accord with High Court precedent. This often results in knee-jerk reactions from workplaces that complicates contractor safety management. This general misunderstanding makes administration extremely complex, costly and does absolutely nothing to improve safety regulations.
What should the profession focus more on?
In my opinion, the profession should focus on recognising professional boundaries. I often see lawyers “have a go” at giving health and safety advice while unknowingly providing their clients with incorrect information. This can lead to terrible consequences for clients, including pleading guilty when they shouldn’t, potentially receiving large fines, and in the worst-case scenario, face jail time.
Whilst safety legislation may come across as straightforward, it can be quite complex in its application. Safety legislation requires a high degree of experience and specialisation, which is why I strongly encourage commercial lawyers to refer for professional, legal advice in respect of safety matters, just like how I need to refer for commercial advice when required as that is not my area of speciality.
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?
In my opinion, the law needs to address the issue of cost and its impact on access to legal advice for most Australians and Australian businesses. Unfortunately, very few Australian businesses have the resources to seek legal representation when they need it. This leads to many businesses forgoing seeking reliable advice, which often results in costly and confusing safety compliance arrangements. Through both my own experience as a lawyer, and a litigant, reliable advice provided in the early stages of dealing with a safety management issue is critical to minimising greater costs and complexity down the road.
What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?
Personally, I own a small sustainable farm in northern Victoria and am looking forward to spending more quality time on the farm. I’m super keen on creatively developing the garden, in the meantime taking in the scenery of the countryside while watching my dog run freely around the paddocks.
Professionally, I am also looking forward to more businesses reconsidering the ways they interact with their contractors from a health and safety perspective – to improve safety regulations and lighten the load for both employers and their contractors in safety management. I’m keen on seeing the prioritisation of contractor safety management in the future and would also love to think that the nation might get some legislative reform in this area.
If you were given an opportunity to spend a day with anyone (living or dead), who would it be and why?
I would absolutely love the opportunity to spend some time with a High Court judge. I'd be honoured to speak to any one of them to discuss the duty of ensuring the safety of others and its application to contractors in this day and age. I’d love to engage in informed discussions whilst listening to their thoughts regarding the meaning of “influence and direct” under the model workplace Health and Safety Act in respect of contractors