NSW Bar Association welcomes $88m injection but says more needs to be done
Although welcoming the $88 million legal aid injection for the “chronically underfunded” system as a step in the right direction, the NSW Bar Association said the government should consider further funding to improve justice.
President Tim Game SC said the NSW Bar Association has consistently raised similar concerns about the “adverse impact of underfunding” and this recent government fund is only the first, positive step to improving issues that have “gone unheard for years”.
“The $88 million announced is only about a third of what Legal Aid NSW advised was desperately needed. The urgently requested increase of $236.8 million would have potentially reduced trial lengths in the District Court,” Mr Game said.
“Further sustained funding is urgently required and we look forward to working with the government, Legal Aid NSW and the parliament to ensure sufficient and ongoing resourcing of this important system.”
NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman announced the funding would be delivered over four years. The package includes a staggered increase in the base hourly rate for counsel undertaking legal aid matters and structural changes aimed at increasing allocations for lawyers to undertake critical pre-trial work with clients.
Mr Game said underfunding continues to “adversely” affect victims, clients and any of the witnesses to crimes. It places “further pressure on an already overstretched court system” and equal and fair law is undermined by minimal affordable access to justice.
“The current subsidisation of the justice system by the legal profession regrettably continues and comes at a great personal and financial cost to barristers who have been willing to represent clients in legal aid matters. Once unpaid hours and overheads are taken into account, some barristers undertaking legal aid matters find themselves working for around half of the minimum wage.
Mr Game said the Bar Association will continue its discussions with Legal Aid NSW to improve legal aid fees for counsel and will continue to advocate to government. As the volume of legal aid work and court delays continues to grow, he said ensuring there is adequate funding would have a “substantial impact on efficiencies”.
“More must be done to provide ongoing and sufficient funding for this important system,” Mr Game said. “The Commonwealth government must take its share of the responsibility for the current legal aid crisis as a 50:50 partner with state governments, a commitment it has failed for many years to keep.
“Federal funding is falling hundreds of millions of dollars short of what is required to meet current demand. With the federal budget heading back into the black, there is an opportunity to invest in justice infrastructure that [impacts the] whole community.”