3 February 2020

New Legal Aid president says access to justice is imperative in a civilised society

| Dominic Giannini
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Law courts of ACT

“I cannot overestimate how important it is for a civilised society to have something like legal aid.” – new Legal Aid Commission president Karen Fryar. Photo: Region Media.

After a distinguished career on the bench, former magistrate Karen Fryar has been appointed as the new president of the Legal Aid Commission.

Taking on the role vacated by the outgoing president, former ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, Ms Fryar said she will champion access to justice for those in need.

Ms Fryar said she has been inclined to work in the community sector since studying at the Australian National University in the post-Whitlam area when there was a strong emphasis on social justice.

She worked in private practice and the office of the Australian Government Solicitor before taking on the role of deputy CEO in the ACT’s Legal Aid Commission, which is when “the disadvantage others suffer became a stark reality to me”.

“During the 5 years I was there I had the opportunity to assist those most in need and learnt to understand a bit more about the disadvantages many people face,” Ms Fryar said.

She took that understanding into her role as a magistrate following her appointment in 1993. She was the ACT’s first female judicial officer.

“The privilege of being appointed to the court was the most amazing. A fantastic job. And during those 26 years I tried to have a positive impact on the lives of the people who appeared before me.”

Ms Fryar told Region Media that her wealth of experience as a magistrate has helped her understand the problems that ordinary Canberrans face when they come up against a complex legal system.

“In my dealings with the people who were caught up in the system during my time as a magistrate, I came to understand what problems they were facing and what complications they faced and how important the services of legal aid were to so many people,” Ms Fryar said.

“When I talk about access to justice I do not just mean representation in court in criminal matters, but just getting information and things like that.

“It is difficult for the average citizen to navigate where they should be getting that information. I cannot overestimate how important it is for a civilised society to have something like legal aid, especially in the times when government finances are tight.”

When it comes to legal representation, most Canberrans do not know where to start and it is the invaluable role that the Legal Aid Commission plays that helps give the public fair access to justice.

“The legal system is very complex and there is such a gap between people who can afford legal representation and those who cannot,” Ms Fryar said.

“For example, someone coming in for what may seem to be a fairly simple matter in court is able to access the duty solicitor and get some free advice, and that is so important, even if they are then self-represented.

“I just hope to contribute to the ongoing good work that they do.”

ACT Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay said Ms Fryar’s advocacy for restorative justice measures made her perfect for such an important role.

“Ms Fryar has served the ACT Court and the Canberra community as a Magistrate and academic for more than 25 years,” Mr Ramsay said.

“She has had an enduring impact on a wide spectrum of legal issues particularly in relation to family violence, children and young people.

“This experience will serve Ms Fryar well in her new capacity as the President of the ACT Legal Aid Commission and I look forward to her commencing her new role.”

Mr Ramsay also thanked Mr Stanhope for his contribution.

“Mr Stanhope has served the Commission and the community with distinction throughout his tenure as President and I thank him for his service.”

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“access to justice”


Almost no one has access to justice. We have a legal system not a justice system.

The legal system can be a great enemy of justice.

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