THE AUSTRALIAN Labor Party faired only marginally better than the Coalition in its plans for human rights and tort reforms, and both have disappointed on access to justice in this country, according to the peak body representing the legal profession.
The Law Council of Australia (LCA) argues the major political parties are not doing enough to spruce up legal aid in Australia. “It’s clearly not a priority,” said LCA president Stephen Southwood QC.
In the lead up to the election, the LCA called on the parties to address what it identified as the major issues for Australian lawyers.
One request asked the parties to reinstate legal aid funding to pre-1996 levels. “The drastic legal aid cuts of the current government’s early years disadvantaged many Australians, particularly women, and the funding shortfall has never been made up,” Southwood said prior to the election.
Other reforms included “access to justice issues … child asylum seekers, judicial pensions and the further examination of a Bill of Rights,” Southwood said, as well as legal profession regulation and the affordability of law degrees.
Such issues were “close to the heart of legal practitioners” and “relevant to the well-being of Australians”, Southwood said.
But with the responses now at hand, it appeared the parties were somewhat lacklustre about these “important” issues. In fact, by LCA standards, the parties actually “failed the test”.
Despite the avalanche of funds being promised by both the Coalition and the ALP, they have declined to accept that federal legal aid funding remains inadequate, Southwood said.
“Australians of limited means or who are in dire straits need assistance from time to time to pursue their legal rights, and the major parties are refusing to help them by making necessary and adequate legal aid arrangements.”
The legal system has been ignored in this election campaign, Southwood said. “This may be because of the campaign strategies and the areas that are likely to get them votes.”
“In relation to legal services, most people call on lawyers once or twice a lifetime. Education is a big issue all the time, likewise health, and that is why those areas have been given far greater emphasis.”
A major stumbling block for the LCA’s approval of the Coalition was what the LCA termed “blind support” for the use of military commissions.
Southwood said “one would have hoped” that following Lex Lasry’s report on the use of military commissions for Australian terrorist suspect David Hicks, “that they would have had a good look at it. It’s not as though they came up with their own report that contradicted anything [Lasry] said.”
“The Coalition’s rejection of moves to examine the merits of a Bill of Rights, its reiteration of its blind support for American military commissions, and its expressed intention to retain current policies for the detention of child asylum seekers underline how low its human rights credentials have sunk,” Southwood said.
The LCA noted that regarding a Bill of Rights, the ALP supported referring the matter to the Australian Law Reform Commission for inquiry after further community consultation.
Failure by both parties to rule out pursuing new money laundering reforms, potentially requiring lawyers to report on the activities of some of their clients irrespective of any duties owed under client confidentiality, was a concern to the LCA.
Post election, Southwood said the LCA hopes that “over a period of time that ultimately time will be found to give [these issues] proper attention”.