LEGAL Aid Commissions, community legal centers and Indigenous legal services have been "chronically underfunded" in recent years, according to the Law Council of Australia.
Legal aid has been facing downfall, particularly in the Commonwealth area, since 1996 when the so-called "commonwealth-state divide" was introduced by the previous government, the LCA said.
In evidence provided this week to a Senate inquiry into access to justice, the Law Council highlighted that the Commonwealth’s share of legal aid funding has fallen by about 20 per cent between 1996/97 and 2009/10.
Commonwealth funding for legal aid has been dropping sharply, with figures obtained by the Law Council showing a steady decline since the late 1990s.
A Parliamentary Committee report on Access to Justice is due to be released today.
Bill Grant, secretary general of the Law Council, told The New Lawyer that the demise of legal aid in Australia came about in the mid 1990s when the Howard Government decided that it would only allow Commonwealth monies to be spent on Commonwealth law matters.
Previously it was a 55-45 per cent split, with the latter coming from the state. This has lead to a drastic drop in Commonwealth funding, Grant said.
"I believe this was not about Commonwealth law matters, it was about cutting the amount of money it was putting into legal assistance sector, not just legal aid but community legal centers and aboriginal legal services, all of which are chronically under funded," he said.
When the Rudd government came into power, he said, many were hopeful it would see the beginning of correcting that position. "No one expects sizable amounts of money to be injected in one or two budgets, but the money in real terms has actually decreased," Grant said.
The Law Council said the Attorney General is trying as hard as he can to get the money out of his government, "but we've seen resources go into other areas. I don't think it's as simple as "times are tough'".
The Law Council recommends the Commonwealth develop and adopt a mechanism to begin to break down the commonwealth-state funding divide.