The ACT Law Society has flagged an urgent need for increased funding, noting how the COVID-19 pandemic has pinpointed obvious gaps in the legal assistance sector.
In an open call to the Commonwealth and territory governments, the Law Society has called for the current level of funding to the sector be raised with great priority.
“As Law Week in the ACT approaches, it’s a good time to take a hard look at how accessible our legal services are for the most vulnerable members of our community,” said Law Society president Elizabeth Carroll.
“The COVID-19 emergency highlighted the cracks in our legal assistance sector. Chronic underfunding over an ongoing period has widened the justice gap for many ACT residents, and that gap will continue to increase unless Canberra’s legal assistance organisations receive an urgently-needed funding increase.”
Ms Carroll said over the past 12 months the society has seen a rise in community calls with people unsure where they can go for legal help.
“The legal assistance sector simply doesn’t have the funding to help every individual who needs it,” she said.
“The Law Society has seen firsthand the impact on individuals unable to access legal support when they need it. When this happens, the burden often shifts to other community support systems, including emergency services, mental health and other health services, and correctional services.”
In conclusion, Ms Carroll said “legal profession in the ACT has for a long time worked to fill the gaps in legal assistance for vulnerable members of our community”, but this is a “Band-Aid solution for something that needs a strong government commitment”.
“Our local firms and members provide pro bono legal services for individual and not-for-profit clients, either directly or through the ACT’s legal aid and legal assistance providers,” Ms Carroll explained.
“The Law Society also supports people who haven’t been able to access legal support through Legal Aid ACT or other community legal centres in the ACT via our free Pro Bono Clearing House. The Clearing House is supported by volunteers and by local law firms who agree to take on pro bono referrals. These services should not be relied on as long-term solutions to the ongoing access to justice funding shortfall.
“The Law Society calls on the ACT and Commonwealth governments to raise the current level of investment in the legal assistance sector in the ACT.”