Bench & Bar Dinner 2008

One of the highlights of the Bench & Bar Dinner on November 19th was John McAlpine, QC's compelling acceptance speech as the recipient of the prestigious Law Society Award. His talk was a call to action on the issue of legal aid and pro bono.

John McAlpine, QC (right) receives the Law Society Award from President John Hunter, QC. Photo by Lee Halliday.
John McAlpine, QC (right) receives the Law Society Award from President John Hunter, QC. Photo by Lee Halliday

"To prepare this speech," said McAlpine, "I have interviewed some of the men and women in the trenches. My message is to the leaders of our profession. I speak to you simply as one voice within our community of lawyers."

McAlpine has been a supporter and advocate for legal aid and pro bono work throughout his career. He shared the story of his first legal aid experience — a murder case — when he was an associate lawyer at age 29. Many more legal aid cases would cross his desk, however, the most memorable was a criminal case for an accused, Mingma Sherpa.

Despite the Crown's evidence, McAlpine and other counsel practising at their boutique litigation firm believed Sherpa was innocent. After throwing himself "and what seemed like half the firm" into the case, the trial judge rendered a verdict of acquittal. Before Sherpa returned to Nepal, he presented McAlpine with a ceremonial shawl and a Sherpa blessing to express his gratitude.

"I do not remember either of these two cases I've mentioned, or others, that drew a feeling of being noble or of making a large sacrifice," said McAlpine. "The Sherpa case was the greatest case I ever took as counsel. The expenditure of financial and human resources was not constrained by the fact that this was a pro bono case. There was no other acceptable result but this man's acquittal. The case was conducted on that basis.

"The task of the leadership of our profession does not rest solely on the discharge of our ethical responsibilities. In practical terms, it also rests upon changing the public's perception of the legal profession. Stepping up to the plate and meeting the gap goes to the visible strength and viability of our profession. Because the issues of legal aid and pro bono are, and must remain, current and demanding, pro bono and legal aid should move up to the top of the agenda. Why? Because I believe the profession itself is on trial.

"I believe the conduct of the profession practising pro bono and helping to meet the needs I speak of, will be a strong moral force, and will be recognized as such by the public. The ethical obligation is upon each lawyer in their firm. It is for her or him to decide. To have force, the Bar's approach must come from the top — the Bar's leaders. The approach has to be direct. And given the lives of those affected, it should be immediate."