NATIONAL LEGAL Aid is following the lead of the legal profession and calling for the Commonwealth Government to increase its funding. The alternative, it claims, is a nationwide family law crisis.
Representing Australia’s eight legal aid commissions, National Legal Aid chairperson George Turnbull called on the Government last week to address the Federal Budget’s failure to provide enough funding for legal aid services.
“The Federal Budget was the Commonwealth Government’s chance to inject adequate funding and prevent the looming crisis in the family law system,” Turnbull said.
Although there had been an increase in funding to legal aid services, it was a case of too little, too late, Turnbull said. “The new funding levels outlined in the Budget have put us back to the levels we were operating with in 1996/1997 … before the Government slashed legal aid funding.”
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly when the Budget was announced, Law Council of Australia president Bob Gotterson’s views reflected those of Turnbull. Taking into account inflation and the initial cuts to legal aid by the Howard Government, Gotterson said that what appeared to be a “big spend” had left legal aid “treading water”.
Legal aid services had been “plagued by chronic under funding” over the last seven years and, as a result, had been reduced, Turnbull said. “The new funding levels, although indexed, will allow us to do nothing more but tread water.”
All legal aid commissions wanted to increase the income and asset cut-offs used in the means test, Turnbull said. But they could not do this because there was not enough funding to do it. “It is a disappointing blow for all legal aid commissions around the country who work tirelessly to increase access to justice.”
Many families have been left alone to negotiate the family law system by themselves, Turnbull said. Referring to a Griffith University study conducted last year, he said it confirmed that the growing number of people representing themselves in the Family Court was related to inadequate legal aid funding.
The study revealed that many of those appearing on their own in court were ineligible for legal aid based on their income, but did not earn enough to hire a lawyer.
Turnbull said he was looking forward to a full analysis of the chronic under funding for family law matters when the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee released the results of its Inquiryinto Legal Aid and Access to Justice, due out on Wednesday this week.