Additional funding for frontline legal services during COVID-19 has been welcomed, but should be seen as the starting point for a “properly funded legal assistance sector”.
Last week, the federal government pledged an additional $63.3 million boost for the legal sector to ensure support and advice can be accessed amid COVID-19 concerns.
The funding boost has been welcomed by the Law Council of Australia. It includes $20 million earmarked for domestic violence, $29.8 million towards tenancy disputes, insurance, credit and debt-related problems, work-related claims and $13.5 million on IT upgrades.
The funding is a “welcome injection” to help meet a rise in demand for legal services, LCA said.
“The legal profession, not least those in frontline community legal services have continued to work tirelessly throughout the pandemic to ensure that the needs of the public have been met,” LCA president Pauline Wright said.
“This is a sector that has been chronically underfunded for years. However, despite this, it continues to serve our communities to a standard well beyond available resources and infrastructure. We are particularly pleased to see a recognition that greater investment is needed to address the IT capability of the legal assistance sector.”
However, LCA said that the injection of funding by the government should be the first step towards a properly funded legal assistance sector.
“These are extremely challenging times, and a properly funded legal assistance sector is an essential element of how we respond and recover from the COVID-19 crisis,” Ms Wright said.
“While the importance of accessible legal assistance is heightened in times of crisis, these services are continually in high demand, and without long-term and substantive funding increases, some of our most vulnerable people will continue to slip through the cracks,” LCA noted in a statement.
“These funding shortfalls were a key focus of the Law Council’s Justice Project released in 2018 which noted that due to the shortage of funds, although 14 per cent of Australians fell below the poverty line, only 8 per cent qualified for legal aid.”
Elsewhere, the NSW state government has announced a fast-tracked program worth $9 million for courts and correction facilities affected by the COVID-19 restrictions.