The Justice Project is an ambitious attempt to examine the extent of access to justice needs of vulnerable Australians for the first time in decades. It also aims to put a human face to what members of the legal profession have consistently referred to as an urgent national crisis.
According to Will Alstergren QC, president of the Australian Bar Association (ABA), an inaccessible justice system that is also in crisis is not unique to Australia. He pointed to recent commentary emerging from the UK’s Lord Neuberger who has advocated for government intervention to increase funding or consider alternative funding models.
“The levels of unrepresented litigants coming before our courts is alarming, as is the vast number of people in our society who are unable to obtain legal advice,” Mr Alstergren said.
“The outcomes of the Justice Project are likely to paint the most up-to-date picture of the lack of access to justice for many members of our community.”
He added that the ABA has taken a consistently vocal position on this very issue, campaigning for much-needed additional support to Australia’s legal assistance sector. Equal access to justice is a basic right for all Australians, Mr Alstergren said.
“The ABA is currently discussing with government and the courts a new model for data retention, new models for the most efficient ways of providing pro bono services and the feasibility of alternative funding models, for example, funding from the private sector,” Mr Alstergren said.
“Pro bono work is now not enough nor is it ever going to be able to replace legal aid. It is time we recognise the problems as the Justice Project demonstrates and looks for solutions.”
This week the LCA announced that the Justice Project had moved into its consultation phase, coinciding the news with a campaign to encourage responses and submissions to consultation papers from the legal profession and public at large.
The initiative is being led by former High Court Chief Justice Robert French AC, who was named as chair of the project steering committee earlier this year. He is supported by expert committee members comprising eminent lawyers, jurists and academics.
The final report intends to publish evidence-based recommendations to access to justice reforms in Australia, accompanied by stories of real people facing real hardship on account of the access to justice barriers that exist. It will also include a literature review.
“The Justice Project aims to build the case for better justice strategies and law reform secured by appropriate funding,” the LCA said.
“It will look at the justice system from the people’s point of view and will culminate in a final report, following a literature review and consultation process.”
Each of the consultation papers relate to the plight of 13 different vulnerable community groups who face “significant social and economic disadvantage”. They include: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; people with a disability; older persons; people experiencing economic disadvantage; homeless persons; children and young people; prisoners and detainees; people who have been trafficked and exploited; LGBTI people; recent migrants, asylum seekers; people who experience family violence; and people in regional and remote areas of Australia.
As part of its consultation, the LCA will be undertaking road tours of various rural, regional and metro locations throughout Australia.
Submissions for the Justice Project will be accepted until 30 September.