LAWYERS in Western Australia have reacted to a new report revealing a decline in legal aid funding.
The dramatic decline in Commonwealth funding for legal aid has left the legal assistance sector chronically underfunded, resulting in reduced access to justice for Western Australians and more pressure on the State Government to make up the difference, said the Law Society of Western Australia.
According to the Law Council of Australia, during the period of 1996/1997, the Commonwealth’s contribution to Australia’s legal aid commissions was $128 million, roughly 50 per cent of the total legal aid income of $264 million.
In contrast, the Commonwealth’s contribution in 2009/2010 has dropped to $168 million from a total of $531 million, less than 32 per cent of the total legal aid income.
“This is a dramatic decline of nearly 20 per cent in little more than a decade of the notional amount of funding, without taking into account inflation,” said Society president Dudley Stow.
“While the states have increased legal aid funding to a small extent, the Commonwealth Government’s contribution has decreased considerably in both notional and in real terms.
“The result of this is that access to justice for ordinary Western Australians is much harder to come by, as services are under-resourced and stretched to the limit.
“If this continued underfunding persists, the WA government will have to substantially contribute more funding to ensure the state’s legal aid services can continue to operate at even the current low level.”
Stow said that if the State Government’s proposed right to silence legislative reform goes ahead as planned, this will place even greater pressure on legal aid services as defendants will require legal advice prior to deciding whether or not to speak to police.
“When the right to silence was reformed in England, millions of pounds in additional government money were injected into the legal aid system to ensure that people were able to receive independent legal advice at police stations before deciding whether to speak to or make a statement to police.
“If the State Attorney General’s proposed reforms follow those in the UK, then a member of the public should have similar rights to those that exist in the UK, with consequential requirement for a substantial increase in legal aid funding required.”