Lawyers and legal advocates have weighed in on the federal budget for 2021-22, which was delivered on Tuesday night.
Looking broadly at the announcements, a panel from BigLaw firm Gilbert + Tobin – comprising partners Muhunthan Kanagaratnam, Julian Cheng, Mark Goldsmith and Hanh Chau, lawyers Alina Sedmak, Matthew Charman and Patrice Elias, and graduate Alexis Koumas – noted that budget surpluses are no longer the target for the federal government.
“Instead, driving down unemployment and increasing spending in the public and the private sectors are the new normal goals,” the panel mused.
“In pursuit of these goals, the Budget reverses years of neglect of various sectors of society, such as the elderly and socially disadvantaged. There is also a splash of cash for new areas, such as on women’s safety and economic security.
“We will have to see whether the impact of these collective measures will have the desired effect and lead to the reduction in unemployment and wage growth (and resulting inflation) that the Reserve Bank and the broader community is looking for.”
Most industries and taxpayers will benefit, the G+T panel continued, from measures in the budget for 2021-22.
“However, genuine structural tax reform is again missing, with economists already questioning the adequacy of measures,” it added.
“Nonetheless, with a healthy population and a largely open economy, Australia has a great springboard to meet the future. It is a shame the Budget does not do more to promote Australia’s longer term policy objectives.”
Court funding and women’s safety
The provision of $416.2 million over four years for the family law system was perhaps the most consequential announcement pertaining to the legal sector in the budget.
Law Council of Australia president Dr Brasch QC called it a “step in the right direction in the fight against abuse”.
The measures announced, including $129 million over four years from 2021-22 for increased legal assistance funding to help women access justice and $60.8 million over four years from 2021-22 to enable the family courts to implement a new approach to family law case management, are “important initiatives that will help Australian families interacting with the courts’ system”, she said.
However, Dr Brasch added, it is “disappointing that the government has not used this opportunity to properly address the chronic under-resourcing of the courts in terms of judicial and also registrar numbers”.
“There are currently long delays in commencing and finalising matters in the federal courts and tribunals, which cause an enormous human burden, not just on the judiciary, but also on the individuals and families who despair at the delays they experience in resolving matters,” she said.
Women’s Legal Services Australia (WLSA) welcomed the funding to help women and children safely escape violent relationships, with Women’s Legal Service Queensland CEO WLSA spokesperson Angela Lynch saying the investment is “significant and acknowledges the scale of the issue of gendered violence”.
“I’m heartened at the government’s acknowledgement of the crucial role women’s legal services play in responding to violence against women. For many women and children at risk the justice system and courts are the only pathway to find safety, and specialised legal support is essential to keeping them safe through that process,” she proclaimed.
“Women’s legal services also provide a range of wraparound specialised services for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, including women in regional and remote areas where support is often scarce. Without that extra support like financial counselling and social work, many women feel they’re unable to leave their partner safely and keep their children safe and supported.”
However, Ms Lynch warned the $60.8 million earmarked to improve family law case management will fail to create a “safe, child-centred” system without urgent law reform that puts safety first.
“We note the government’s focus on family law reform, but women and children will only be safe in the system if changes are made to make it the priority. For example, the assumption of shared parental responsibility, which gives violent men an incentive to litigate and puts children at risk,” she posited.
“This dangerous presumption routinely gives violent perpetrators continued access to their victims and has already caused preventable deaths. Survivors have been clear: it must go.”
Dr Brasch said that the $17.1 million over four years to domestic violence units and health justice partnerships to deliver additional mental health-specific services for women who have experienced family and domestic violence and the $60 million over four years for the legal assistance sector to provide support to people experiencing mental health conditions will offer “greater recognition of the critical role these services play in providing access to justice for some our most vulnerable communities”.
“The downstream savings created by proper investment in the legal sector are clear. It’s time government recognises that a failure to adequately invest in these services has broader implications to health, housing, social services and welfare, child protection, families, corrections, policing and justice portfolios,” she said.
While LCA wants to see significant increases in funding across all parts of the legal assistance sector, particularly for specialised and culturally appropriate legal services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, “we are hopeful that this Budget indicates a recognition by government that resourcing this sector is a fundamental component to responding to challenging social and economic problems”, Dr Brasch opined.
WLSA also welcomed the additional funds for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family legal services, which it said will “provide the culturally sensitive support needed to tackle violence in indigenous communities”.
LCA further noted it was pleased to see investments to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, by way of the additional $9.3 million over four years to support the [email protected] Council secretariat and $5.3 million over three years to build evidence and further develop primary prevention initiatives.
“Eliminating sexual harassment in the legal profession has been part of a long-running commitment from LCA, and recent events have emphasised that fresh and comprehensive responses are required to drive the necessary, and overdue, cultural change,” Dr Brasch continued.
“[We are] also encouraged by the increase of funding to provide legal assistance to workers who experience, or are at risk of, sexual harassment, allowing for specialist lawyers with workplace and discrimination law expertise to deliver these services to help vulnerable workers to address their legal issues and empower them to take action if required.”
Elsewhere, Sydney-based boutique firm Marque Lawyers responded to the budget with its usual quirk, tweeting the following: "Can we see a graph of how much less interesting each year’s budget is compared to the last. Pretty sure it drops by 50 per cent per annum over the forward estimates.”