Treasurer Scott Morrison delivered the 2016 federal budget on Tuesday night, which indicates a cut in funding for courts and legal services from $1.217 billion in 2015-16 to $1.159 billion in 2016-17.
“Expenses within the courts and legal services sub-function are estimated to decrease by 6.5 per cent in real terms from 2015-16 to 2016-17 and decrease by 13.0 per cent in real terms from 2016-17 to 2019-20,” the budget reads.
According to the budget, this mainly reflects the completion of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, and the expected completion of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in December 2017.
The president of the Law Council of Australia, Stuart Clark, expressed disappointment that the budget contained no new funding for the under-resourced federal courts.
“Failing to properly fund the federal courts, including the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court, has significant social and economic costs, which are felt throughout the entire community,” Mr Clark said.
“Projected savings through amalgamation of courts’ administrations should be immediately reinvested back into the court system, which desperately needs it.
“Quite simply, diminishing the capacity of the courts increases cost and uncertainty for business and is anathema to economic growth and productivity."
Legal assistance funding
The Commonwealth also provides funding for the National Partnership on legal assistance services.
“This National Partnership allows the States to provide legal assistance services to disadvantaged persons by legal aid commissions and community legal centres in accordance with Commonwealth policy priorities,” according to the budget.
The estimated spend on legal assistance services for 2015-16 is $250.9 million, with a 2.5 per cent increase to $257.1 million expected in 2016-17.
However, a 3.3 per cent decrease to $248.7 million is on the cards for 2017-18.
Mr Clark said: “In the lead-up to the election campaign, we are calling on all parties to reverse these cuts and put an end to the legal aid crisis."
Mr Clark said that the Law Council’s concern follows the disappointing official response to the Productivity Commission’s Access to Justice Arrangements report.
“The Productivity Commission recommended an immediate injection of $200 million for civil law matters alone,” Mr Clark said.
“Unfortunately, the government has stood by cuts announced in the 2014-15 budget, as well as further cuts in 2017.”
The Aboriginal Legal Service has also expressed its disappointment in the budget and the effects it will have on the Indigenous population, particularly Indigenous youth.
“Federal, State and Territory Attorney-Generals have already acknowledged the over-representation of Aboriginal children in the criminal justice system,” Gary Oliver, CEO of Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT), said.
“These significant cuts will mean more kids locked up.”
The Aboriginal Legal Service estimates that 4,800 Aboriginal men, women and children in NSW will miss out on legal assistance in one year.
“This is made even worse when other legal assistance providers such as Legal Aid and Community Legal Centres are also facing funding cuts by the federal government,” he added.
“We call on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Senator Brandis to turn around the budget paper slip of the pen and urgently fund these services to assist our kids.”
The Law Society of NSW also highlighted the impact that these cuts will have on indigenous people, as well as on family law matters.
“The Law Society of NSW has been raising its concerns about the under-resourcing of the legal assistance sector with the Federal Attorney General, calling on him to reverse the proposed funding cuts, particularly as they impact Indigenous people,” Gary Ulman, president of the Law Society of NSW said.
“We also recently wrote to the Prime Minister and the Attorney General calling for an urgent review of resourcing for the family law matters, noting the extent of delays parties are experiencing in these matters, and the impact this is having on the financial and mental health of parties and their children.”
He continued: “Disappointingly the Federal Government has made no provision to increase resources for the Family Court or Federal Circuit Court.”
On the positive side, the Law Council noted that the staged cuts to small business and company tax would be of benefit to law firms across the nation.
“The staged reduction in business and company tax will allow legal practices to invest in greater resources and this will provide a benefit to the economy broadly,” Mr Clark said.
“The Australian legal sector has huge potential for growth across our region, and reductions in business and company tax will provide an important boost.”
Meanwhile, the implementation of law reforms recommended by the Financial System Inquiry will be accelerated through funding announced for ASIC and the Department of the Treasury.
In relation to the implementation of the TPP, the budget has announced $2.9 million in funding for the Federal Court of Australia to provide a mechanism to deal with disputes about procurement decisions over four years from 2016-17.
Also, the government will contribute $9.9 million for the development of a Domestic Violence Order (DVO) sharing system, to be known as the National Order Reference System.
This system will strengthen the identification and development of DVOs across state and territory borders for police, partner agencies and the courts. Funding for this measure has already been provided by the government.