The law and lawyers: their limits – an Academy of Law Ethics Hypothetical

The Australian Academy of Law held the first of its three Sydney conferences for the year on 4 April 2017 under the theme of the law and ethics.  It was a very successful and thought provoking event before a large audience of around 200 lawyers and other professionals, judges and academics, in the ceremonial court of the Federal Court of Australia.

The chair and the panel

A hypothetical debate was conducted by John Sheahan SC before an eminent panel of Professor Peter Cashman (Sydney), Professor Bryan Horrigan (Monash), ASIC Commissioner Cathie Armour, the Hon Michael Lavarch AO (QUT), Bret Walker SC and Dr Ruth Higgins (barristers), and Professor Uwe Dulleck (QUT).


The topic was centred around the limits of what the law itself can achieve for society and its individuals, often in the context of demands for it to do more.  Approaches from other perspectives and disciplines, and individual measures, can provide other avenues.


The scenario

A fact scenario was debated involving a biogenetic company with a successful product that, after some period of time, is revealed to be harmful to its users. The debate tested the ethical responses of the board, and its general counsel, the individual directors and management, ASIC, a whistleblower and lawyers and others advising, and a judge ultimately being asked to approve a class action settlement, with those responses themselves tested from a behavioral economics perspective.  Issues involved the company’s corporate culture and its remuneration incentives, financial incentives for whistleblowers, litigation funding and legal costs, and the political and community perspective, and law reform. Ultimately, the debate sought to show that while the law itself provides much for our security, standards of living and prosperity,  there are limits to its capacity to fully serve the full range of legal needs of society.  

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The purpose of the debate

Dr Kevin Lindgren as President of the Academy, opened the session explaining that these sessions go to meet the objectives of the Academy in promoting the rule of law and providing a bridge between the judiciary, academia and the legal profession.

The two following events – concerning the law as a business or a profession, and the training and educational expectations of lawyers – are on 20 June and 17 October, with final details to be settled.

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Professor Rosalind Croucher gave an inspired closing address to the event, thanking John Sheahan and the panelists for their time and effort and their contribution to the work of the Academy.   

Details of the scenario debated are here on request.

If there are any questions about this or further events of the Academy, please contact me.

Michael Murray Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law

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