Support for same-sex marriage has caused a damaging rift in the NSW legal profession, after the Law Society came under fire for issuing a joint statement with the medical profession backing a change to federal marriage laws.
The NSW Law Society, which represents the state’s 30,000 solicitors, joined with the Bar Association and the state division of the Australian Medical Association on August 19 to issue a statement expressing support for changing the Marriage Act.
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Fairfax Media understands the Law Society’s governing body, the law council, was divided over support for the change.
Fifteen of the council’s 22 members were present for the vote on August 17 about whether to participate in the joint statement. Five members voted against it.
On Monday, Law Society president Pauline Wright was forced to issue a statement defending the society’s support for same-sex marriage after a Sydney law firm partner, Robin Speed of tax advisory firm Speed & Stracey, called for Ms Wright to “immediately resign” over the “false and misleading statement”.
Mr Speed, the former long-time secretary of the Lowy Institute for international policy and the founder of the Rule of Law Institute, said in a letter to Ms Wright that she had “no right to pretend that you represent the profession on this issue”.
In a second letter, he said some members of the profession “may support same-sex marriage but choose to vote ‘no'” in the same-sex marriage postal survey because “there is no or inadequate protections [sic] contained in the question for freedom of speech, freedom to think and … religious freedom”.
“One has only to look at the experience in Canada … to see what freedoms will be lost and institutions endangered,” Mr Speed said.
Ms Wright said the joint statement was “consistent with the position adopted by the national peak body of the profession, the Law Council of Australia, and with the published policy position of the Law Society of NSW since 2012”.
“It is also consistent with the position taken by other professional associations, law firms and corporations,” she said.
Ms Wright said “the law must respect and preserve the dignity, equality and human rights of all persons”.
“Where laws operate to treat some people differently to others based on inherent characteristics, it is incumbent on the Law Society of NSW to support change to remove discrimination wherever it lies,” she said.
The president of the NSW Bar Association, Arthur Moses, SC, said: “As a courtesy to our members, correspondence between them in a private capacity and the president is kept confidential unless they choose to make it public.”
Mr Moses said the Bar Association “does not accept that it is appropriate that any federal legislation purport to discriminate against individuals based on their sexuality”.
“I accept that people will have different views in relation to this matter,” Mr Moses said.
“I respect their right to hold those views, even though I disagree with those views.”
He called for respectful debate on both sides.