THE FEDERAL Government should overhaul its legal aid funding arrangements and return to the cooperative model with the states and territories in place before 1997, a year-long inquiry by the Senate has found.
The inquiry, entitled Legal Aid and Access to Justice, was conducted by the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee and tabled in the Senate last Tuesday.
Including five public hearings and over 115 submissions from Commonwealth and state governments, legal aid commissions, community groups and key stakeholders, the inquiry examined the impact of legal aid funding arrangements introduced by the Commonwealth Government in 1997.
“A return to cooperation between the Commonwealth and states/territories would reduce administrative costs and bureaucratic difficulties that people face where matters do not clearly fall within one jurisdiction,” the report states.
This move would also signify a cooperative approach to meeting the obligation that a civilised society owes its citizens in providing access to justice, it said.
Several groups are affected by the inadequate arrangements as they now stand, the report suggests. Indigenous Australians, people in rural and remote areas, migrants and refugees, were among those particularly restricted in gaining access to justice.
There were also barriers preventing access to justice for homeless people, the mentally ill and young people, the Committee heard. Additionally, Indigenous women remained chronically disadvantaged.
The Committee heard strong concern over the Government’s recent decision, “in light of the proposed abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission”, to put Indigenous legal services out to tender.
The report recommends the exposure draft of the request to tender that is currently being circulated should be withdrawn: “It must be ensured that the need for targeted, culturally sensitive and specialised Indigenous legal aid services is recognised by decision makers.”
The Committee also heard concerns from community legal centres about the increased demands for their services, and it was suggested that many centres were facing funding crises.
The conditions of some premises were so deprived that competitions had been held for the worst office, and some lawyers had interviewed clients in their cars. Appropriate funding should be provided to support these legal centres, the report recommended.
Inquiry into the Australian Legal Aid System: Third Report, a report by the Committee in June 1998, stated the Government appeared to believe that more of the legal aid workload could be shifted to the private legal profession. It warned of the limited capacity of the private profession to take more responsibility in this area.
Last week’s report acknowledged that since 1998 there had been developments in pro bono service provision. But the Government should commit to ongoing funding of the National Pro Bono Resource Centre past 2006.
Committee chair Senator Nick Bolkus emphasised the need to reform the current funding of legal aid. “Current funding models are failing the community,” he said. “They are not meeting the high levels of need across the country and there needs to be a radical overhauling of the Commonwealth funding of legal aid.”
See related article: Senate inquiry: Corker has his say on pro bono.