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Profession attacks legal aid screening

Briefs

Cite as: (2003) 77(4) LIJ, p.14

The Law Institute has joined a chorus of protest against a federal government proposal to screen legal aid lawyers involved in national security matters. Under the proposed guideline drawn up by federal Attorney-General Daryl Williams, legal aid for defendants will be granted once their legal representative holds a security clearance.

According to the proposal, gaining the security clearance will “assist lawyers representing legally-aided clients to access information relevant to the defence of their client”. A spokeswoman for Mr Williams said the possession of classified information by people without a security clearance could pose a threat to national security.

The Institute, state Attorney-General Rob Hulls and Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) managing director Tony Parsons have raised objections to the proposal.

Institute president Bill O’Shea said the proposal was absurd because private practitioners in legal matters involving security issues would not need security clearances to handle the same information.

“In our view, the whole issue is imprecise and there are no clear explanations as to what does or doesn’t constitute a security issue,” he said.

“In any case, it is inequitable to impose such a burden on legal aid lawyers as opposed to the entire profession.”

Mr Hulls said it was important to maintain people’s rights to legal representation despite the current high-security environment. “This is an unprecedented interference by the federal Attorney-General in the democratic workings of our legal system,” Mr Hulls said.

Mr Parsons said the VLA was troubled by the proposal because it discriminated against the most disadvantaged members of the community. There would also be a significant cost burden imposed by the proposal.

“First, there is the cost of a security clearance assessment, which the Commonwealth has agreed to pick up, but it’s not clear whether that cost will be picked up out of funding currently being provided to VLA or whether additional funding would be provided.

“The other cost is to the individuals in the profession who might choose to seek a security clearance,” Mr Parsons said.

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