LEGAL AID in this country has been left treading water after Attorney-General Philip Ruddock’s announcement last week that $52.7 million would be spent on this area over four years, the Law Council of Australia said.
Claiming that the Australian Government was continuing to ensure that legal representation was available to Australians in need, Ruddock said a total of $599 million would be provided over four years for Commonwealth legal aid in family, criminal and civil matters arising under Commonwealth law.
ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope last week deplored the Commonwealth’s “stingy” approach to providing legal aid. And the Australian Democrats’ spokesperson for the Attorney-General and Justice, Senator Brian Greig, said the 2004 budget measures for legal aid were barely enough to keep up with the current demand, and that the Government was employing false economy by “scrimping” on basic legal funding.
“The Government boasts of a 10 per cent increase in legal aid funding, but what it doesn’t say is that it has taken some $700,000 away from community legal centres in order to do it,” Greig said.
Funding levels for legal aid still had not reached what they were in 1996, said Law Council president Bob Gotterson. Taking into account inflation, and the initial cuts in legal aid by the Howard Government, Gotterson said what appeared to be a “big spend” had left legal aid “treading water”.
Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) co-executive director Emma Hunt told Lawyers Weekly the Commonwealth Government’s contribution to legal aid had been “hugely reduced”. “If you look at England and other countries we are very low per population,” she said. “As some have said, like the rest of the budget they are starting to give back in areas where they have previously taken away”.
The funding provided to the Legal Aid Commission by the Commonwealth means that some applicants, even though they meet the requirements, “will still not be funded because there is simply not enough money available,” said Stanhope.
“The Chief Minister said that in 2003-04, the Commission was provided with $3,367 million and in 2004-05 this amount will rise to $3.57 million, including $100,000 for increased fees to lawyers and $50,000 to implement new Commonwealth guidelines governing the grant of aid.”
However, the increase in lawyers’ fees had been calculated at $280,000, Stanhope said. This was more than double the amount estimated by the Commonwealth and more than the total increase in funds made available, he said.
Legal aid was becoming little more than cost recovery, said Gotterson, as legal aid rates paid to the private profession had fallen below the cost to the practitioner of providing the services.
As a result, experienced practitioners would increasingly not be attracted to legal aid work, Gotterson said. “I would make the prediction that legal aid will continue to be handled in the private profession mainly by young and inexperienced lawyers.”
The new funding arrangement would include a component to provide a new duty lawyer service in an attempt to assist those people who seek to represent themselves in family law matters before the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court, Ruddock said.
A duty lawyer “can and does” offer a legal first aid, said Law Council president Gotterson. “But it does not provide a full treatment for the individual’s legal predicament,” he said. Duty lawyers, available at court to assist individuals on the day, are not able, as a private practitioner is, to prepare a case prior to the hearing.
He said there was something of an imbalance if one side is fully represented, either because they can afford it or have been able to secure legal aid, and on the other side someone is represented by a duty lawyer.