With almost half of all rural practitioners expected to leave the workforce over the next five years, immediate action is needed to avoid a crisis regarding rural access to justice.
This was one of the primary conclusions arising from the inaugural National Rural Regional Law and Justice Conference, held at Warrnambool in Victoria's south from 19 to 21 November, in which the fact that 42 per cent of rural lawyers are predicted to soon leave the profession was a paramount consideration.
A key initiative to emerge from the conference involves the formation of a national alliance to deal with what conference convener and Deakin University research fellow Richard Coverdale describes as "a looming crisis".
"Rural, regional and remote Australia continues to experience widespread disadvantage in accessing justice system services and the proposed alliance will act as an independent and informed voice working with governments at all levels, professional services and communities to ensure the issues are acknowledged and addressed," Coverdale said.
The proposed alliance, which will be known as the National Rural Justice Alliance, will champion the cause of rural justice and has its sights set on engaging in dialogue with the Minister for Regional Australia, Simon Crean.
"We believe there are ways the Australian government and community can do more to encourage legal practitioners to establish practices in regional Australia and to address other issues such as access to specialist courts in regional areas," said Coverdale.
"A united voice through the proposed alliance will highlight these issues from a national perspective and seek action to address these matters."
The conference, which was sponsored by Deakin University, was opened by The Honourable Chief Justice Robert French and Deakin University Vice Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander. Over 100 senior legal, academic and community sector leaders attended.
Coverdale said the conference highlighted a broad range of issues impacting on the equity of law and justice services to rural and regional communities, and clear evidence was presented, in a range of areas, which showed that justice system services are not effectively reaching rural Australia.
Attendees to the conference discussed several options for improving access to law and justice systems for rural Australia, including the implementation of more focused support services to regional legal practitioners, such as mentoring programs for early career lawyers and targeted law graduate programs; the funding of research which audits discrepancies in the provision of justice system services and programs between regional and metropolitan Australia; the creation of more flexibility in the provision of courts and court services to ensure they are responsive to regional variations; and the establishment of coalitions with other professional services in regional Australia.
It is expected that the alliance, which has representatives from all states and territories, will soon finalise a mission statement and be operational by February 2011.