A Pricewaterhouse Coopers report, commissioned for National Legal Aid, has revealed that the legal aid system is still struggling to recover from funding cuts introduced in 1996-1997, leading to calls for a much-needed funding boost.
According to Chair of National Legal Aid, Alan Kirkland, Commonwealth legal aid funding has decreased by 12 per cent in real terms from 1996-1997 to 2008-09. "Per capita Commonwealth expenditure on legal aid has decreased by a staggering 27 per cent," he said. "This is mainly due to funding cuts introduced in 1996-97, from which the legal aid system has never recovered."
The Law Council of Australia said the results of the survey provide further proof that the legal assistance sector is in dire need of a significant funding boost and that injecting funds into the sector can save the justice system money in the long term.
President of the Law Council, Glenn Ferguson, said for every one dollar spent on Commonwealth legal aid services, up to $2.25 is saved within the justice system.
"Clearly these findings suggest that there is a strong economic justification for the provision of legal aid, with the benefits easily outweighing the costs of providing those services," Ferguson said.
"The Law Council, along with its constituent bodies, has long-argued the need for an increase in funding for Australia's legal assistance sector - our argument is only strengthened by this evidence that legal aid provides a positive economic benefit," he said.
"Governments, of course, also have a responsibility to provide access to justice as part of the provision of basic human rights. All Australians have a fundamental right to access legal advice and services, regardless of their means.
"The Law Council urges the Federal Government to address the crucial issue of legal assistance sector funding in the up-coming Federal Budget," Ferguson said.
Kirkland warned that the need for assistance will continue to grow. "As we come out of the global financial crisis and interest rates rise, many families are struggling to manage repayments and credit card bills. We are struggling to help all of those in need and the need for assistance is likely to continue to grow."