Catherine Gale (pictured), president of the Law Council of Australia, told Lawyers Weekly that while the government grant is a much-needed injection of funds for legal assistance providers, the figure is too low to solve chronic underfunding issues faced by community legal centres (CLCs) and legal aid commissions (LACs).
“While it will not solve the issues that have arisen out of years of underfunding of the legal assistance sector, the funding will certainly go some way to easing the pressure being experienced by some CLCs and LACs,” she said.
Attorney-General Nicola Roxon announced the funding boost at the National Association of Community Legal Centres conference last week (29 August).
The money will be spread across 21 CLCs and provide a “modest” one-off contribution to LACs in the Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory and Tasmania. However, it will not extend to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services or the remaining legal assistance providers that are not earmarked to receive this funding, Gale pointed out.
Funding shortfalls have forced LACs in some jurisdictions to tighten eligibility for legal aid to such an extent that many who are living below the Henderson poverty line are unable to receive legal aid assistance, continued Gale.
Her comments are supported by 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.
The survey also found that around 73 per cent of community legal services in Australia aren’t able to meet demand for their services.
Gale argued that the Commonwealth, as principal revenue raiser, should contribute at least 50 per cent of funding to legal aid. Gale described the Commonwealth’s 34 per cent contribution to the total legal aid budget in 2010-11 as “inadequate”.
Actuarial advice obtained by the LCA indicated that to return Commonwealth per capita funding levels to 50 per cent an additional $72.94 million increase is required in the 2012-13 financial year, with further substantial increases in subsequent years.