Australian Financial Review [Sydney, NSW, Australia]
July 31, 2022
By Michael Pelly
Partners at Corrs Chambers Westgarth are dismayed that they were not consulted before the law firm told the Catholic Church it would no longer handle claims of child abuse after being its main legal adviser on the issue for 25 years.
The Australian Financial Review has been told the decision not only blindsided the church, but it was done without the knowledge of the partners at the national firm, some of whom could lose valuable work in the fallout.
They and others also cannot reconcile the decision with the fact that the firm retains British American Tobacco as a long-standing client.
Partners are usually regarded as co-owners at any firm, and treated as such if they have an equity stake. Even if there is an executive leadership team, any decision that could materially affect the direction or reputation of the firm will usually be discussed or voted on by the broader partnership.
It is understood the partner who led Corrs’ work on church compensation claims, Richard Leder, was also given no notice that the firm was opting out of abuse work and was not involved in communicating that decision to church leaders in Sydney and Melbourne.
The firm said it was “transitioning away from personal injury work” as it focused more on corporate law. It has declined to comment on speculation that younger lawyers at the firm were uncomfortable with the connection and were reluctant to do the work, and that this was also affecting Corrs’ appeal to graduates.
Corrs CEO Gavin MacLaren has declined all requests for an interview, instead relying on two short statements put out by the firm’s corporate affairs team.
For this report, he was asked if it was “true that the decision to drop the church abuse claims work was not discussed with the partners”. He was also asked whether “this represents a significant culture shift for the firm” and why Corrs retained British American Tobacco as a client.
The firm said on Wednesday Mr Leder, who is also a leading media lawyer, remained a partner at the firm and the church remained a client. However, that could change quickly.
Corrs has been acting for both the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne (CAM) and the Archdiocese of Sydney, but it only does personal injury work for Melbourne. In Sydney it does most of the legal work for the church, which is a big provider of school, hospital, aged care and education services, and has a huge property portfolio.
Corrs has been acting for the church in Melbourne for 60 years and has used its connection to the church as a selling point to staff and clients.
The CAM, headed by Archbishop Peter Comensoli, said in a statement on Wednesday that Corrs had taken a unilateral decision and that it was now “working through the detail”.
“Corrs Chambers Westgarth has taken a decision that we as a client were not involved in,” he said.
Corrs devised the Melbourne Response to church abuse claims in 1996, with Mr Leder in the vanguard. It took over the abuse work from other lawyers in Sydney when then archbishop George Pell moved from Melbourne to Sydney in 2001.
Michael Pelly is the legal editor, based in our Sydney newsroom. He has been a senior adviser to federal and state attorneys-general and written two books, one a biography of former High Court Chief Justice Murray Gleeson. Email Michael at email@example.com