Legal aid misses out in 2019 federal budget
The 2019 federal budget has been handed down, with little promise of additional legal assistance funding, despite members of the profession calling for the contrary in the lead-up.
Tonight at 7:30pm Treasurer Josh Frydenberg delivered the 2019-20 federal budget - his first since taking on the top job last year.
In handing it down the Treasurer announced a budget surplus of $7.1 billion, which he noted is a $55 billion turnaround from the deficit "we inherited six years ago".
"Surpluses will continue to build toward one per cent of GDP within a decade, as we climb the mountain and reach our goal of eliminating Commonwealth net debt by 2030 or sooner," Mr Frydenberg said in his delivery.
Among the big winners in this year’s budget are low- and middle-income taxpayers, SMEs, schools, housing and infrastructure projects.
Oppositely, legal assistance funding fell short, despite calls from the nation’s legal profession for such aid to be made a priority in the lead-up to the budget hand-down.
The government confirmed it will provide an additional $30.5 million over three years for such funding, Frydenberg said, however LCA president Arthur Moses responded saying this is not in line with the additional $310 million per year needed to provide adequate justice.
In its 2019-20 Pre-Budget Submission, the Law Council of Australia (LCA) labelled the current levels of legal assistance funding in Australia as “abysmal” and “at its lowest level in decades”.
In 1997, the federal government spent $11.22 per capita, according to LCA president Arthur Moses SC, whereas today, it is spending less than $8 per capita.
“Legal assistance funding in Australia is abysmal and in need of urgent review. Some of our most vulnerable people are slipping through the cracks, as the Law Council’s Justice Project illustrates,” Mr Moses said.
“At least $310 million a year is needed to provide adequate funding for Legal Aid Commissions, community legal centres, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services and family violence prevention legal services.
"This would provide a much-needed injection of funds for frontline legal services to increase civil legal assistance and will come close to restoring the Commonwealth’s share of funding for Legal Aid Commissions to 50 per cent.”
Further, the LCA’s submission called for urgent additional funding of the federal courts, “especially the Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia” - something that also failed to receive a mention in Mr Frydenberg’s delivery.
“Australia’s family law system is chronically under-resourced, underfunded and overburdened. Families and children are having to wait up to three years, in many cases more, to have matters heard,” Mr Moses said.
“As the federal courts’ workloads continue to increase, more resourcing is desperately needed to keep up with demand. This must include appointing further judges and registrars, and additional legal assistance.”
This federal budget marks the second consecutive year where both further legal assistance and funding to combat court delays did receive much attention, with Mr Frydenberg's predecessor and now-Prime Minister Scott Morrison also not placing immediate priority on either.
Find out more about the Budget 2019-20 in Lawyers Weekly’s special Budget Bulletin tomorrow afternoon, featuring reaction commentary from players in the profession.
Correction: A previous version of this article did not take into account the $30 million dedicated by the government. This has been amended to reflect that commitment.