The Federal budget's allocation for state legal aid has been labelled "very disappointing" by key legal bodies.
In an effort to counter criticism of its budgeted legal aid spend, the Government - three days before the budget was released - announced it will provide an additional one-off $20 million for community legal services. However, this move has been met with mixed views.
The $20 million will include around $10 million for Commonwealth legal aid services, $4 million for community legal centres and around $6 million for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS).
The Minister for Home Affairs Bob Debus said in a statement that this funding "will help address pressing legal aid needs, particularly those of Indigenous Australians and families under acute financial pressure".
However, the Victorian Bar takes a different view, and said that the Government has "failed to address a structural crisis in legal aid funding".
"This is very disappointing," said Victorian Bar chairman John Digby QC. "As a one-off band aid measure, it does nothing to stabilise the long-term operation of legal aid system in our state or in our country.
"The $20 million band aid is a clear acknowledgement that the system is groaning under the weight of the demands already on it. But how can legal aid agencies adapt to meet the current community need for access to justice via legal aid when they cannot plan ahead?"
The $20 million one-off spend is in addition to base-level legal aid funding that the Commonwealth has allocated to state legal aid over the next four years. However, even with this additional $20 million, it appears that state legal aid will be worse off - at least as far as Commonwealth funding is concerned - over the coming four years.
In 2008-09 Commonwealth legal aid funding totalled $176.4 million, whereas in 2009-10 it will drop to $165.6 million. This is despite the fact that there is likely to be more need in the community for legal aid services in the coming year as a result of the downturn. Over the next four years, Commonwealth legal aid funding will remain fairly stable at around $170 million a year.
The Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) also believes failure of the Government to increase legal aid funding is a disappointment. President Danny Barlow said: "The system can only continue to go backwards while we wait for a better deal from the Commonwealth to Victorian Legal Aid."
Legal aid funding is split between the Federal and state governments, but under the Commonwealth/state legal aid funding agreement, federal funding can only be used strictly for Commonwealth matters. Speaking to Lawyers Weekly last week, Victorian Bar's Digby said he welcomed the announcement by the Victorian State Government that it would commit an additional $24.7 million in legal aid funding, but he said that the Federal Government had yet demonstrate its commitment.
"We see that [Victorian] State Attorney-General Rob Hulls has been very focused on this issue and it doing the best he can in the circumstances, but we are not yet of the view that the Federal Government has done as much as it should have, and that it can do," Digby said.
He described this recent announcement as a "missed opportunity" for the Federal Government to step up and shoulder its fair share of the responsibility.
"Legal aid is a joint Federal and state responsibility. Both must recognise their responsibilities and shoulder the funding obligations and both must ensure the proper operation of justice in Victoria," he said.
"This is a missed opportunity to protect access to justice in the longer term, even while it goes some of the way to dealing with the funding issue right now,' he concluded.
- Zoe Lyon