POVERTY, illiteracy, disability and other obstacles deny many people access to justice, an audience heard at the launch of an Access to Justice and Legal Needs project at NSW Parliament House last Friday. The new project will attempt to improve equity and accessibility to justice in this state.
Law and Justice Foundation chair Tony Fitzgerald told the audience, including NSW Attorney General Bob Debus and Smith Family CEO Elaine Henry, that Access to Justice is one of the “primary benchmarks of functional democracy”.
The NSW Parliament recently set the cogs turning, through a statutory mandate for the Law and Justice Foundation, to improve access to justice by the community, particularly economically and socially disadvantaged people. The Foundation’s Access to Justice and Legal Needs project was an initiative intended to execute that mandate by independent, evidence-based research.
At the launch last week, Fitzgerald said there had been significant efforts to improve litigation procedures in recent years, and NSW was “increasingly adopting other, more efficient methods of dispute resolution to supplement the court system”.
But the disadvantages facing sections of the community were hindering them from taking part in public debate, he said. The aim of the project was to provide information and analyses and “recommend actions to assist policy makers and service deliverers to improve the fairness and equity and accessibility of the justice system”, he said.
The structure of the project comprises two research stages and a communication strategy. As it proceeded, the Foundation would seek information from a wide section of the community, while “listening carefully to those who are disadvantaged and those who work with them”, Fitzgerald said.
The first stage of the program was completed last week, the day of the launch. Fitzgerald said that even in this early stage, some trends were emerging regarding the access to justice of disadvantaged people in NSW. There was “a higher demand for family law advice in rural, regional and remote areas”.
Three services were provided in these remote areas, including LawAccess NSW, the Legal Aid NSW Information and Advice Service and NSW community legal centres. But, “in the majority of rural/regional/remote areas, the proportion of family law inquiries was higher than the state average for at least two of the three services”, Fitzgerald said.
Regarding civil law, housing and credit and debt had emerged as big issues in both the inquiry analysis and a survey carried out in the Bega Valley local government area. “Just over a quarter of the Bega survey participants reported dealing with a housing problem in the last 12 months,” he said. Disputes with neighbours were at the top of the list.
While people wanted help to resolve their legal problems, the Bega research revealed, only 26 per cent wanted legal representation.
“Little data had previously existed on the legal needs of disadvantaged people, so the Foundation will be breaking new ground,” Fitzgerald said. Questions raised in this first stage of the research program will attempt to be answered in the second. The report detailing the results will be published later this year.
The legal needs of specific disadvantaged groups such as older people, homeless people, people with mental illnesses, and prisoners and people recently released from prison, will also be examined.