While community legal centres this week called for a better funding to legal assistance services in Australia, the Law Council of Australia has welcomed a one-off $1.6m injection into the sector.
While both professional bodies welcomed Attorney General Nicola Roxon’s $1.6m financial boost for community legal centres, there is also a consensus the amount is small, and not enough.
Community Law Australia renewed calls for better funding for legal centres in a national conference of Community Legal Centres held in Adelaide this week. The body met with the Attorney General on Wednesday, who also delivered a speech saying there is strong evidence that access to justice is a major problem around the country.
Hugh de Kretser, Community Law Australia spokesperson, told The Australian newspaper that the one-off extra funding of $1.6 million announced by Attorney-General Nicola Roxon this week fell far short of the $330 million in new annual funding the sector had called for.
"It's not an insult -- it's a welcome boost, but it's not the major action that's required to make access to justice a reality for those who can't afford a lawyer," he said in The Australian report.
Law Council of Australia president, Catherine Gale, agreed the allocation of $1.6 million in one- off funding for community legal centres and legal aid commissions is a small, but much needed injection of funds for legal assistance providers.
“Due to nearly 15 years of underfunding, Community Legal Centre’s and Legal Aid Commissions have struggled to maintain basic services,” Gale said.
Funding shortfalls have forced legal aid commissions in some jurisdictions to tighten eligibility for legal aid to such an extent, that many people who are living below the Henderson poverty line are unable to receive legal aid assistance, the Law Council said.
A recent report released by the National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC) noted there are substantial downstream savings in the delivery of justice of up to $18 for every dollar invested in the legal assistance sector.
This report reflects findings from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which estimated that for every dollar invested in the legal assistance sector, there is a saving of $1.60 to $2.25 in the delivery of justice.
“The legal assistance sector undoubtedly provides one of the best returns on investment from any Australian Government funded program,” Gale said.
Since 1997 the Australian Government’s contribution to Legal Aid Commission funding, compared to the states and territories, has fallen from 55 per cent to the present level of 35 per cent.
The Law Council has been calling on the Australian Government to restore funding to 50:50 with the States and Territories by 2015.
Actuarial advice obtained by the Law Council indicates 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.
“The Attorney-General’s funding announcement is a positive step forward for the legal assistance sector,” Gale said.
“The Law Council will continue to work with its Constituent Bodies to ensure this issue remains a priority for the Australian Government so that all Australians have access to legal advice and services, regardless of their means.”