Australian and UK legal bodies have called for reforms to legal assistance funding and sentencing practices.
Members of the Australian, UK and Irish bars recently came together for the Australian Bar Association’s Biennial Conference in London and Dublin.
Lord Neuberger, Chief Justice of the UK Supreme Court, said the three jurisdictions are facing similar challenges in providing fair access to justice.
“Many people [are faced] with the unedifying choice of being driven from the courts or having to represent themselves,” Lord Neuberger said.
ABA president Will Alstergren QC said Australia’s legal assistance budgets need a complete rethink to provide access to justice in a sustainable manner.
“The ABA holds significant concerns about Australia’s legal assistance budget being able to provide the necessary and adequate access to justice both now and into the future, and that without a complete rethink of its funding, the rule of law hangs in jeopardy,” he said.
“Despite the best intentions of both state and federal governments in Australia, they have been unable to commit to funding legal assistance to anywhere near the level required.
“Australia’s experience is not dissimilar to that of other common law jurisdictions, including England and Ireland, and presents an opportunity for all these nations to work together to identify other alternatives and solutions to this growing problem.”
These comments came as the community organisation Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT (ALS) called for a rethink of the sentencing of Indigenous offenders.
ALS urged the NSW government to place Indigenous offenders on community-based sentencing orders instead of jailing them for lower-level criminal conduct such as minor assaults, stalking and breaching AVOs.
The organisation cited research from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) that found there has been a 25 per cent increase in Indigenous incarceration in NSW since 2013.
The rate of Indigenous people jailed for stalking and intimidation offences was eight times higher in 2016 than in 2012. However, BOCSAR said this “reflects a change in policing policy rather than a real increase in the incidence of stalking and intimidation”.
ALS chairman Bunja Smith said the findings highlighted the need for alternative sentencing measures.
“Only recently, the Human Rights Law [Centre] reported a staggering 250 per cent rise in the number of Aboriginal women in custody since the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission, and now this BOCSAR research highlights the disturbing rise in Aboriginal incarceration for offences like minor assaults,” he said.
“The overrepresentation of Aboriginal people behind bars is disgraceful and just proves that the state’s current justice system is adversely impacting Aboriginal people before the courts.
“Clearly, one meaningful way of addressing this is by a greater use of community-based sentencing options, such as Intensive Correction Orders and other rehabilitation programs that keep Aboriginal people in the community rather than being sent to prison.
“We urgently need to ensure any ‘tough on crime’ policing methods do not disproportionately affect Aboriginal people and we are calling on the state government to consult with Aboriginal communities to develop meaningful diversionary programs – for Aboriginal communities.”