A “GREAT GAP” in civil law legal aid services in Australia needs to be remedied by governments that ensure that communities have access to justice, Victoria Legal Aid said last week.
Victims of “unconscionable financial institutions” and “unconscionable landlords who kick disadvantaged or elderly people out of premises” need to be assisted by their state and Commonwealth governments, said Victoria Legal Aid managing director Tony Parsons last week.
“Those people’s rights are as real and important as anyone else’s. And if our system of justice and the way of our society is to be respected by the community, then all the community need to have access to the mechanisms that protect those rights and liberties. We think the responsibility of governments is to address the big gap and it’s about civil law legal aid,” he said.
Parsons said that while law firms do play an important role in assisting disadvantaged people to receive access to justice, the onus should lie on governments, which have never achieved satisfactory funding to legal aid commissions since their funding was dramatically cut in 1996.
“Tragically, legal aid commissions across Australia did run strong civil law programs up until 1996 when the Commonwealth Government removed about 120 million dollars nationally from legal aid. The consequence was that overnight every Australian legal aid commission closed down its civil law program, recognising that it had to prioritise, and so it chose to prioritise [criminal and family law], which I think was the right decision,” Parsons said.
“But since then, the Commonwealth has not been prepared to assist commissions to reinstate those civil law programs. And so the great gap in legal aid in Australia is civil law services,” he said.
Firms do provide some support to legal aid, said Parsons, but legal aid commissions are not well enough resourced to make up the difference — too many people fall through the gaps. If a civil case like a personal injury matter has a prospect of success, there are plenty of firms that will take the case on a no win no fee basis.
“But many civil cases, people with many valid civil law needs, are not getting assistance because legal aid commissions are not well enough resourced enough to do this.”
Victoria Legal Aid receives funding from the state and the Commonwealth, said Parsons. But he argues this is not enough. “It’s not the responsibility of any individual government, it is the responsibility of all governments to ensure that their communities have access to justice across all law types.”
Law firms lighten the work load for legal aid commissions to some extent, said Parsons. They are happy to do legal aid work because, “while it is not highly remunerative, there is some revenue there”.
As well, lawyers see legal aid work as a contribution to the welfare of the community, said Parsons. “Many lawyers are willing to take on legal aid work that is not highly remunerative because it gives back to the community something of what the community has given lawyers. Lawyers are in a very privileged position in this society and they should give back. Many of them do by doing legally aided work for less than market rates,” he said.
Although large law firms have more staff and larger budgets, it is relatively small firms, with between two and six practitioners, that do the majority of criminal law work in Victoria, said Parsons.
Family law is a little different, he said, and that work generally goes to small and medium sized firms. “Very rarely do the big end of town firms do much legal aid work, [they ] generally don’t have strong practices around family law and criminal law,” he said.
For civil law matters, many of the “big end of town firms” have pro bono departments, and have set up structures to assist. “They make their contributions in other ways,” said Parsons.
In family law work, however, most of the work is left to the legal aid commissions. “In family law, because we prioritise that area, we see ourselves as being the defenders of the interests of the most vulnerable people in our community, the most powerless people in the community, the children.”
Legal aid commissions are forced to be economical with the budget they do have, so as to have the most beneficial effect on those in the community they serve. Dealing with 90,000 matters over a 12-month period, on a budget of less than $100 million, is an economical process, said Parsons. “It works out that the average case is less than $100 dollars, and that is good value for the community. We see ourselves as being very prudent servants of the public and we are very delighted that we are able to do that,” he said.