Law groups have expressed disappointment in this week's Federal Budget, noting a significant gap in access to justice initiatives despite the more than $10 million in savings from various assistance schemes.
Treasurer Wayne Swan's fourth Federal Budget did not include additional funding for the legal assistance sector, aside from a $4 million investment over four years to improve access to legal assistance services through the National Broadband Network (NBN).
The Law Council of Australia (LCA), Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) and Victorian Bar have all declared that the Federal Government must do more to ease current financial pressures facing the legal assistance sector.
All three groups had previously called for $66 million in legal aid funding to be allocated in the 2011-12 Budget - the minimum needed in order to return the Federal Government's contribution to legal aid to the 50 per cent level of total funding the sector received in the years leading up to 1997.
Victorian Bar Chairman Mark Moshinsky SC said the news was particularly disappointing given the budget papers identified $10.4 million over four years in savings from a number of existing assistance schemes.
"We recognise that the Government faced difficult decisions in this year's budget, but the bottom line is that real people are missing out on legal representation and assistance and this will cost us more as a community," he said.
The NBN initiative outlined in the Budget was not something the LCA suggested in its legal aid submission to the Federal Government, with a spokesperson from the LCA confirming with Lawyers Weekly that they are still waiting on further details of the plan and more information as to how it will be arranged.
While LIV president Caroline Counsel welcomed the additional $4 million for legal aid via the NBN funding, she said it would be insufficient to meet demand.
"This allocation to legal aid commissions and community legal centres is no substitute for providing a lawyer who will help people resolve their disputes," said Counsel.
According to LCA president Alexander Ward, the legal assistance sector is currently facing a "financial crisis" due to 14 years of underfunding by the Federal Government.
"The Government's failure to adequately address legal assistance sector funding is unacceptable and the outcomes will have a significant impact on many Australians, including some of our most vulnerable citizens, particularly in times of natural disaster," said Ward.
Counsel said the lack of funding will hurt families facing a breakup.
"We expect to see an increase in unrepresented litigants as a result of this Budget," she said.
"That will result in an increase in delays and protracted disputes in the Family Court which is not in the best interests of children or their parents."
Ward added that all Australians should have the right to access legal advice and services, regardless of their means, and that groups like the LCA have been calling on the Commonwealth Government to make this a reality for over a decade.
The LCA has provided a plan to Treasury to restore funding to 50 per cent through consolidated revenue by 2015.