Chronic underfunding is crippling the legal assistance sector, the Law Council of Australia (LCA) has claimed, after figures were released revealing community legal centres are turning away record numbers of people in need.
Around 73 per cent of community legal services in Australia aren’t able to meet demand for their services, according to an Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) survey, which has found a record 11,693 people presenting for help were turned away over the past year.
Catherine Gale (pictured), LCA president, told Lawyers Weekly the survey highlights the Federal Government’s failure to address underfunding of the legal assistance sector.
Gale described the Commonwealth’s 34 per cent contribution to the total legal aid budget in 2010-2011 as “inadequate”.
“There has been a dramatic drop in the proportion of funding contributed by the Commonwealth ... and the outcomes will have a significant impact on many Australians, including some of our most vulnerable citizens.”
Australian Government legal aid funding per capita has fallen by about 22 per cent in real terms since 1997. The LCA has made a business case to Treasury to restore Government funding to 50 per cent by 2015.
“Underfunding of the legal assistance sector creates additional costs downstream, rippling into many different areas, including the justice system, public health system and the broader business community,” said Gale.
She pointed to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report commissioned by National Legal Aid, which revealed that for every $1 spent on Commonwealth legal aid services up to $2.25 is saved within the justice system.
“This means that the Commonwealth can actually save more than it invests by simply delivering on its funding obligations,” she said.
Funding shortfalls have also forced legal aid commissions in some jurisdictions to tighten eligibility for legal aid, which has left many people living below the Henderson poverty line unable to access legal assistance, Gale claimed.
This problem is not unique to community legal centres, she continued, with Legal Aid Commissions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services “feeling the effects of funding shortfalls for well over a decade”.