Interview with Robert Dubler SC, Bar Association Disability Advocate for Change

Simon Philips

By 2016, Dr Robert Dubler SC had been at the NSW Bar for over 25 years and had developed a substantial commercial practice. In May 2016, Robert suffered a terrible accident while surfing at Bondi beach which left him a quadriplegic. After many months of hospitalisation and rehabilitation, in 2017 Robert was able to resume his barrister’s practice and was appointed as a senior member of NCAT. In 2020 he was appointed by the Bar Association as its Disability Advocate for Change.

Bar News (BN): Were there any particular techniques or technology which you found especially helpful in recovering and learning to work with disability as a barrister?

Robert Dubler SC (RD): Based upon personal experience, and even more generally, it is clear that it is vital that common technologies we all take for granted should be made accessible to the widest audience including persons with various physical or mental impairments. In the case of working as a barrister, I found it crucial and essential that easy-to-use and effective voice recognition software is available to those with mobility issues such as myself. The ability to operate smart phones and computers, such as laptops, and to be able to produce texts from voice recognition technology is extremely important and has enabled me personally to be able to continue to work as a barrister, including appearing in the High Court, and the NSW Supreme Court despite having a high spinal cord injury. Today, my work focuses on being a senior member of NCAT or as a mediator or arbitrator or in providing advice work rather than appearances.

BN: Have you had any personal experience of discrimination, whether conscious or unconscious, that you have had to deal with as a barrister with a disability?

RD: There have been many obstacles in the path of returning to practice. These have included the inadequacy of disability parking in close proximity to the courts. While challenges of this nature can usually be overcome, the greatest problem is the reaction of solicitors at the briefing stage. I assume solicitors find it difficult to justify engaging Counsel with a known serious physical or mental impairment.

BN: You have now been the Bar Association Disability Advocate for Change for two years. What has your experience in that role been like so far?

RD: My experience as the Disability Advocate for Change has been both challenging and rewarding. It has involved quite a lot of difficult, slow and hard work. But one achievement I am very proud of is the establishment of the Accessibility Panel for the NSW Bar. The Panel comprises about 10 barristers and at least one clerk and its members work hard, meeting monthly and making recommendations to Bar Council and liaising with heads of jurisdiction for each of the courts. Initially, as Disability Advocate for Change and Chair of the Accessibility Panel, I reached out to the courts in order to press for improvements to accessibility but was unable to progress things very far or fast. However, we have recently been able to make some progress, with the establishment of a Courts Accessibility User Group, with the Law Society and heads of jurisdiction who are now on board. We intend to work with heads of jurisdiction in order to adopt best practices for accessibility to court premises and processes. One aspect of my experience as Disability Advocate for Change has been that I now appreciate the variety of disability needs and the variable response of the courts. For example, in relation to the hearing loop technology, some courts have this available for users but some don’t. Another aspect of the role of the Accessibility Panel has been to look at special exemptions for the Bar Exam process for candidates with special needs.

BN: What are the main goals you have in mind to achieve in the role?

RD: One of the main goals, in conjunction with the Accessibility Panel, is to improve the accessibility of the courts and chambers. Another goal is to improve and educate the profession and judges to improve accessibility, and to undertake research as to how or if changes to the way barristers and the courts can improve inclusiveness at the Bar and encourage and assist persons with disability to join the NSW Bar. I also hope to be able to improve the policies and practice of the Bar Association in catering for special needs of barristers and to be an advocate for special needs/ reasonable accommodations required by barristers with disability. As part of this I hope we can improve the level of communication with and for barristers with special needs. One example of how this could be done would be to introduce a pro forma document to be completed when proceedings are commenced which identifies any special needs of parties or their legal representatives (including counsel) and how they could be addressed. This would have the benefit of courts being able to be proactive in addressing requirements for parties or practitioners with special needs up front rather than such issues having to be raised with a trial judge (in an ad hoc way) shortly before a hearing or well after proceedings have been commenced. One of the gaps which currently exist is that while the courts can be quite good at addressing the special needs of witnesses and the parties, they often tend to overlook the special needs of lawyers, and there are often issues with heritage court buildings not being accessible. Obviously, there are lots of challenges in this regard, especially in regional areas where court buildings are often older and have not been made accessible, but resources do need to be committed to fixing this. There does need to be an accessible court option available for all litigants and their lawyers, and crucial to this process is for there to be early identification of legal representatives who may have special needs rather than it being left to the end of the litigation process or the court being informed on the cusp of a hearing. One thing we are trying to implement is that there is one person or body (within the courts) which is responsible for special needs policy and for updating that policy and providing rich information about the policy to allow people to know what is available to assist practitioners with special needs. We are also hoping to achieve something similar in relation to chambers and have chambers undertake a similar process. Another main goal is to try to enable and encourage there to be more lawyers with special needs at the NSW Bar. I am keen to change the perception that it is difficult to be a barrister with special needs in NSW because of accessibility issues. We want to promote the NSW Bar as being user friendly for all advocates.

BN: Are there any specific challenges that you faced or changes that you are keen to have made?

RD: At the moment, the courts have been somewhat slow to recognise the need for change in practical arrangements for improved accessibility. For example, we have experienced some conflict in relation to the security arrangements in place at the entrances to some courts which are often not compatible for advocates with special needs using the courts. There used to be a perception that security staff should not assist entrants with their handling of court bags and cases through security screening (which requirement is no longer in place). There was also resistance to having ‘front of queue’ signage introduced for advocates with special needs to assist them move through the security screening process. However, some arrangements have improved since we advocated for changes, which was a rewarding outcome, but there is no consistency throughout the state, and there remains much room for improvement. Another challenge is to encourage people to think differently. Improving accessibility is such a broad area and covers so many different forms of special needs, such as physical disability including hearing, vision and mobility needs as well as mental disability. Encouraging the legal community to think differently requires a lot of education and communication. In my view, the courts can do better in improving accessibility. For example, there should be procedures in place by which the courts communicate early and advise what is available for litigants and advocates with special needs, as well as to educate and train and put in place reasonable accommodation in different areas for parties and lawyers with special needs.

BN: Is there a message you would like to convey to individual members of the Bar?

RD: I would like to encourage colleagues to think of the special needs of fellow lawyers, clients and witnesses and wherever possible to have user friendly chambers and to support reasonable accommodation for persons with special needs. BN

Simon Philips

12 Wentworth Selborne Chambers