Access to justice is a basic right for all members of our community, writes Christine Smyth.
Why then should the most vulnerable members of our community be denied? The federal government plans to slash $12 million across the country in vital community legal services (CLC) funding at the federal government's budget deadline in May. This is an assault on human rights, and I am deeply concerned about the plight of our elderly.
Each day, we are pushed to the precipice of the federal fiscal funding.
CLCs provide critical legal assistance to people who are otherwise excluded from accessing legal aid – which has also had federal funding cut. People who need advice on family issues (the federal government has failed to invest in the Family Court of Queensland); advice on domestic violence and elder abuse issues; advice on housing issues; advice on employment; advice on social security matters; advice on substituted decision-making, such as power of attorney; advice on mental illness or physical disabilities will be denied.
As an accredited specialist in succession law and an expert in elder law, I am exceedingly concerned about what the federal fiscal funding cuts will mean for some of our most vulnerable community members – the elderly and infirm.
With recent reports identifying that women over 55 are the new hidden group of those becoming homeless, it is critical that they have access to much-needed legal assistance. Only recently, the federal government cut funding to the Working Women’s Service. How can a government that say they are committed to protecting women from domestic violence then make funding cuts to the very CLCs that support these women?
For many of these women, CLCs are their last resort before becoming homeless. They may not be able to gain employment due to many issues such as having impaired capacity, economic impairment, physical impairment, or they may have left the workplace years before to raise children, resulting in a skills and experience deficit prohibiting them from gaining employment.
Family relationships have become more complex over the years, bringing unprecedented issues into the foray along with the realities of blended families. The cost of living has increased and families are under strain. We often see grandparents in carers’ roles, or assisting children and grandchildren financially.
In our current climate, we see the advent of inheritance impatience, which is a cause of elder abuse. Vulnerability, fear of abandonment, isolation and loneliness see the elderly make decisions they would not otherwise make. These are just some of the many reasons our vulnerable and disadvantaged must have access to the legal advice provided by CLCs.
There is a perception that the Baby Boomer age group are wealthy. They are asset-rich, but cash-and-income-poor. The modest family home they have lived in for 40 years may now be worth a small fortune, but their income has not changed. They rely on social security, the public health system, and CLCs for legal advice. If access to legal advice is torn from them, it creates a system that favours the advantaged over the disadvantaged. They must have access to basic social infrastructure services.
Homelessness Australia report that nearly 27,500 of our homeless people are over the age of 45. These people will be denied basic access to justice through the federal government’s actions. This does not speak to a just and equitable society. Funding cuts must be reversed to ensure the vulnerable will receive support from the community that has benefitted from their contributions over the years.
People receive medical services, so why is it that they are not entitled to legal services?
In the past year alone, community legal centres across Australia have turned away more than 160,000 people.
Where will these people end up? In the revolving door of our justice system?
I believe that it is a fundamental component of the rule of law that access to justice be available to all, not only to a select few. The federal government’s role is to provide essential services and infrastructure – legal advice is an essential social service, and one that is the responsibility of government to provide.
Where the federal government fails to do this, it is somewhat cynical to expect the private sector to fill the role of government. We pay our taxes so that the federal government can provide these services.
Queensland’s legal profession already provides an incomparable amount of pro bono work – more than 290,000 hours last year. It is rare for a profession to provide this amount of free community assistance in Queensland. It is no substitute for proper government funding of essential social infrastructure services.
In 2013-14, UnitingCare Community reported that 139 of its elderly lost in the region of $56.7 million through elder financial abuse.
Shakespeare identified that the key to a chaotic society is to “kill all the lawyers”. Are funding cuts to these fundamental legal services a way of killing all lawyers?
Christine Smyth is the president of the Queensland Law Society.