Legal aid push gathers steam
A raft of legal industry bodies have voiced their support for the national Legal Aid Matters campaign, calling for a total of $350 million in funding.
The Legal Aid Matters campaign, which was launched on Monday to mark the first day of National Law Week, is aimed at ensuring the next federal government responds decisively to the funding crisis.
"Deep cuts by successive federal governments now means that thousands of ordinary Australians are being denied justice," Stuart Clark AM, president of the Law Council of Australia and spokesman for the Legal Aid Matters campaign, said.
"Decades of cuts mean whoever wins the election in July will inherit a system on the brink of complete failure. Reversing the cuts and ending this injustice must be priority for all parties."
The campaign is calling for a total of $350 million in funding, including $120 million to cover civil legal assistance, with the states and territories contributing $80 million, for a total of $200 million – as recommended by the Productivity Commission.
The campaign also wants the Commonwealth’s share of Legal Aid Commission funding increased to 50 per cent with the states and territories, which would amount to an additional $126 million.
Finally, the campaign called for the immediate reversal of the 2014 Commonwealth funding cuts to Community Legal Centres ($12.1 million) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services ($4.5 million) to take effect from July 2017.
The Law Society of NSW, the Law Institute of Victoria, the Victorian Bar, the Queensland Law Society, the Bar Association of Queensland, the ACT Law Society, the Law Society Northern Territory, the Law Society of Western Australia, the Law Society of South Australia and the South Australian Bar Association have all voiced their support and organised various events and rallies across the country.
"The state of legal aid in this country is deplorable and the profession needs to do whatever it can to bring this sorry state of affairs to the attention of the public," Andrew Harris QC, president of the South Australian Bar Association, said.
"I doubt that you will ever get a better time to get the attention of politicians than in an election campaign. Regrettably, it is an issue which is not as seductive as submarines nor as terrific as trains, but it really matters."
National Legal Aid and Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) also both voiced their support for the campaign.
"The lack of legal assistance is a large, but often unseen, problem which profoundly harms disadvantaged Australians, their families, the economy and our society," Suzan Cox QC, chair of National Legal Aid, said.
"The scale of this often-invisible problem has now been quantified by the Productivity Commission. It finds that inadequate legal assistance is highly corrosive – socially and economically – and must be addressed with an immediate $200 million funding increase from Commonwealth, state and territory governments."
She continued: "Extra funding is essential because the current legal aid means test is simply too mean. It results in even some pensioners and welfare benefit recipients being ineligible for legal aid."
ALHR is concerned about the effects this funding crisis will have on society’s most vulnerable members, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, women and children, according to the ALHR vice-president Kerry Weste.
"Funding cuts have come at a time when there are crisis levels of Indigenous imprisonment, high rates of Indigenous children in the child protection system and growing rates of family violence," Ms Weste said.
"A failure to address the funding crisis will make a bad situation worse as more Australians will be unrepresented in courts and unable to access legal assistance. This will lead to increased costs to all governments as unrepresented litigants will block the courts and create inefficiencies in the system."