The sixth National Access to Justice & Pro Bono Conference commenced yesterday and is continuing today. It is the first time the conference has been held in Adelaide.
The guests include Professor Sheldon Krantz, executive director of DC Affordable Law Firm in the US, and shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus QC.
The Law Council of Australia, the Australian Pro Bono Centre and the Law Society of South Australia are presenting the conference. The speakers will examine the challenges Australians face in accessing justice and how these can be alleviated by legal services and pro bono work.
Law Council of Australia president Fiona McLeod SC spoke at the conference opening yesterday morning. She said in a statement that despite the significant pro bono contributions of Australian lawyers, the lack of government funding for legal assistance was limiting access to justice.
“The legal assistance sector is currently in crisis,” Ms McLeod said.
“Australian lawyers are contributing a remarkable 35 hours of pro bono legal services, per lawyer, per year. But this cannot be [a] substitute for a properly funded legal assistance sector.
“A steady erosion of government funding over a generation has now produced a situation in which hundreds of thousands of Australians are being denied legal representation when they seek it.”
A recent example is Community Legal Services Queensland’s call for the federal government to reverse its decision to cut almost 30 per cent of funding from CLCs, which are already only able to service only half of the requests they receive for assistance.
Ms McLeod said in her address yesterday morning that the funding cuts, which will take effect from 1 July this year, will be disastrous for legal assistance.
“Scheduled funding cuts to Community Legal Centres will amount to a loss of $35 million between 2017 and 2020. That’s a 30 per cent cut to Commonwealth funding for services that are already chronically under-resourced,” she said.
“Last year, CLCs were forced to turn away 160,000 people seeking legal assistance. These cuts will lead to 36,000 fewer clients assisted, and 46,000 fewer advices provided.
“The Productivity Commission has called for an extra $200 million for legal assistance because research shows these problems cost the economy long-term. Legal problems are a lot like medical problems: without prompt attention, they tend to get much worse.
“That’s why it is so critical for lawyers to gather and to exchange ideas around how the funding crisis might be addressed, but also how to innovate and collaborate to do the very best possible with the meagre resources currently available.”
In February, Australian Bar Association president Will Alstergren QC called for a “breakthrough of goodwill or a breakthrough of compassion” to improve access to justice.