Access to justice and election agendas
With just three weeks to go, Lawyers Weekly has taken a look at what the major parties think of access to justice as a federal election issue.
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According to the Liberal Party’s website, there is no consideration of the justice system specifically as an election policy.
Despite this, the current government, now in caretaker mode until the election takes place, has cited the “combating of violence against women and children as remaining one of the Morrison Government’s top priorities, as part of its plan to keep Australians safe”.
The Prime Minister has said his government “would deliver the largest ever Commonwealth investment of $328 million for prevention and frontline services through the Fourth Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022”.
Despite a breakdown of new measures including funding for frontline services, prevention strategies, and support measures, a statement announcing the funding did not explicitly refer to funding for provision of justice or legal services.
Also of note is the figure contained in the government’s 2019-20 budget announcement, where just $30.5 million was pledged for a three-year period for legal assistance services for those experiencing family violence, older Australians, people with disabilities, Australians with mental health issues, Indigenous Australians, and those living in rural and remote areas.
In response to a query from Lawyers Weekly, the Attorney-General, the Honourable Christian Porter MP, did emphasise the legal assistance package as announced by the Morrison government in the recent budget “as the basis of the government’s ongoing support of the legal assistance sector”.
“It includes $918.4 million over four years for legal assistance to be delivered by legal aid commissions (LACs), community legal centres (CLCs) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS),” he continued.
Mr Porter then said that “from 1 July 2020, combined with existing funding, the government will provide $1.2 billion over three years for legal assistance services to deliver front-line services to disadvantaged Australians”.
"This will see baseline funding increase to $369.9 million per year, and includes making permanent, an increase in funding to CLCs of $7 million per year that would otherwise have ended in 2020-21 and making permanent an increase in funding of $12.3 million per year to LACs and ATSILS that Labor had otherwise scheduled to end on 30 June 2021 and allocating entirely new permanent funding of $10.0 million per year."
The Attorney-General also highlighted that from 1 July 2020 there will be a new, single national mechanism for Commonwealth legal assistance funding, which will be “a unified administrative mechanism that provides quarantined funding to LACs, CLCs and ATSILS via the state and territories”.
Similar to the Liberal Party, there is no explicit reference to access to justice in the election policies of the Labor Party.
Last month, Labor announced that if it were to be elected to government, it would restore $14 million of funding to Environmental Defenders Offices nationally.
The pledge, as voiced by Tanya Plibersek MP and Mark Dreyfus QC MP, is aimed at restoring funding given to the organisation pre-Abbott.
Ms Plibersek said organisations such as EDOs “ensure that ordinary Australians have proper access to the law”.
“We know that big corporations have deep pockets and they’re able to employ expensive legal teams but ordinary Australians - farmers, indigenous communities, ordinary citizens - should have just the same access to the law as anybody with the most expensive lawyers in the country,” Ms Plibersek said.
As part of Labor’s plan to make ending violence against women a national priority, Bill Shorten MP, Tanya Plibersek MP, and Linda Burney MP have also released a statement noting that their party “will support better legal services through a new $90 million Preventing Family Violence Legal Service Fund”.
This will include $42.5 million extra for Community Legal Centres, with a Labor Party statement noting this could help 115,000 more women.
As part of the same statement, the party also announced $21.5 million extra for Family Violence Prevention Legal Centres providing dedicated legal support available to First Nations women in more areas and $21 million to double the number of Specialist Domestic Violence Units and Health Justice partnerships which can provide specialist support to women in hospitals, health services and in the community.
More holistically, Labor said it will “more than double investment in the Fourth Action Plan to prevent and respond to family violence, delivering record Commonwealth funding of over $660 million”.
Another promise from the Shorten-led team, if elected, would see them deliver a $107 million package to address the disadvantages experienced by First Nations people in the justice system, with $40 million for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, an extra $4 million for the service's governing body, a $21.75 million invested in the progression of justice reinvestment over the next four years.
A Shorten Labor government has also said it will work with states and territories to adopt justice targets under the Closing the Gap framework “so that the inequality in justice outcomes can be properly highlighted and to address unacceptable levels of incarceration among First Nations peoples”, a statement read.
The ALP has also previously committed $120 million over four years for specialist financial services lawyers in community legal centres, if elected into government, following the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry final report’s release.
According to a Labor Party representative, it is likely there will be further announcements on the matter of justice by the Shorten-led party in the lead up to the election.
The Greens have also released a comprehensive plan that it says will improve access to justice for all Australians, care of senator Nick McKim.
Commenting on the plan which was released on 28 April 2019, the senator said that access to justice should not be determined by the thickness of someone’s wallet.
The Access to Justice Policy released by the Australian Greens could see significant additional funding for legal assistance services, with more than $950 million in funding to be provided for community legal centres, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services, family violence prevention legal services and legal aid commissions among other schemes.
The plan, if able to be enacted, reverses cuts to Legal Aid funding, reinstates Environmental Defenders Offices funding, and retains Indigenous legal assistance program funding, The Greens has explained.
It would also allow for the establishment of a royal commission into family law and the protection of children, the document said, with the party highlighting that it demands “the sort of rigorous, evidence-based, and arms-length-from-government inquiry that only a royal commission can provide”.
For Senator McKim, “access is a fundamental right that is being denied to far too many people”.
“The Greens have a plan to restore what has been cut over recent years, and make a real investment in our justice system,” he said.