The chair of the Victorian Bar has said the Federal Budget allocation of $30 million over two years to legal aid commissions won’t make a dent in the sector’s underfunding crisis.
Fiona McLeod (pictured) expressed her disappointment, when speaking with Lawyers Weekly, at what she believed was inadequate funding to assist a Victorian court system “at crisis point”.
“The funding won’t make any bit of difference to the current squeeze we have in our courts,” she said.
Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) made the widest-ranging funding cuts to legal aid grants in its history in January due to “unprecedented demand” for its services, which it said had not been met with proportionate increases in government funding.
McLeod said the cuts had resulted in criminal trials being postponed, children being unrepresented in Family Court matters and former partners cross-examining each other in court after violent relationship breakdowns.
“It’s totally unacceptable and not a way to achieve justice in this country,” she said. “If we’re not funding justice, we’re not fulfilling a basic mandate of government.”
She added that Treasurer Wayne Swan’s budget, announced last night (14 May), won’t allow the VLA to revisit restrictive qualification guidelines that were introduced to save money after the VLA recorded a $3.1 million deficit for the 2011-12 financial year.
Law Council of Australia president Joseph Catanzariti has also claimed the Government’s funding measures are inadequate.
“More is required to rectify years of underfunding of the legal assistance sector,” he said.
Before the release of the Budget, the Victorian Bar had called for the Government to restore the Commonwealth’s share of legal aid funding to 50 per cent nationally, up from the current 32 per cent. This would have required an additional $76.2 million.
McLeod conceded that the minor boost in legal aid’s share is “something rather than nothing” given the Government’s department-wide squeeze on funding.
She welcomed the $62.4 million over three years to provide legal support mechanisms for those engaging with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the additional $10.3 million for Community Legal Centres and $12 million for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, where McLeod said there is a “critical need”.
The Budget has also highlighted the high financial cost of offshore processing of asylum seekers, according to McLeod, after Swan announced additional funding to assist with refugee applications and judicial reviews.
“The so-called crackdown on people smugglers comes at a cost,” she said. “There’s a huge financial impact in pursuing those sorts of policies.”
The Victorian Bar is calling for a review of the funding arrangements, and also planning a national summit before the September election, which McLeod hopes will foster goodwill between the state and federal governments and end the “blame game” over who is responsible for legal aid funding.
The association has proposed a new national partnership between the Commonwealth and states to take a more cooperative approach to resourcing the sector.