The crisis facing Australia's legal aid agencies has spurred Victorian lawyers and social welfare organisations into taking action, with a pre-Federal Budget rally organised for today.
A joint initiative of several organisations including the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) and the Victorian Bar, the Legal Aid Matters rally will be held in Melbourne's CBD today, with several prominent figures set to address the crowd.
LIV president Steven Stevens said the rally was borne of a deep concern for the dwindling access to justice of those who could not afford legal representation, and was aimed at lobbying the Federal Government for an increased allocation in this year's budget.
"The money for legal aid hasn't increased, despite rising costs, and has basically stayed the same over the past seven or eight years now," Stevens told Lawyers Weekly.
"It is causing real difficulties in terms of the community's access to justice, because it is developing into a situation where we are going to have one law for the rich and one for the poor."
Despite the fact that previous years' budgets have not yielded much needed increases in funding, Stevens is confident that this year will be different.
"We have given evidence of the impact of the inadequacy of legal aid funding and we have worked very hard in lobbying Federal and State Governments, all the way to the deputy prime minster and prime minister's office," he said.
"We know it's a tough time budget wise, but this is a really critical issue where an extra $30 or $40 million will go a long, long way."
One of the primary difficulties associated with the lack of funding, and about which former Chief Justice of the Family Court Alastair Nicholson will address the rally, is children caught in family disputes who no longer have access to independent legal representation.
Criminal matters, in which unrepresented defendants result in repeatedly deferred cases, are also high on the agenda.
"You go in there unrepresented and you cop the consequences, and that is not representing fairness in the community. Not everyone can afford a lawyer," said Stevens.
LIV president elect Caroline Counsel and barrister Robert Richter QC will also speak at the rally, which Stevens is hopeful will attract a strong presence from the legal community.