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Senate investigates legal aid funding

Briefs

Cite as: (2003) 77(8) LIJ, p.19

The Senate will investigate the impact of current commonwealth legal aid funding levels on access to justice after opposition parties used their numbers to vote for a wide-ranging inquiry.

The Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee has begun taking submissions on a range of issues regarding legal aid funding, including the performance of current arrangements in achieving national equity and uniform access to justice.

Committee chair and Labor Senator Nick Bolkus said the inquiry would investigate the impact of the government’s access to justice policy on outer metropolitan, regional and rural areas.

“There are disturbing reports that just as bulk-billing doctors are harder to find, there are fewer legal practitioners willing to take on legal aid work,” he said.

The Labor Party claims that under the current federal government legal aid has lost $400 million in funding between 1995/96 and 2003/04.

A spokeswoman for federal Attorney-General Daryl Williams said the inquiry was unnecessary and not supported by the government. She said the government had provided an additional $63 million for legal aid over four years from 1 July 2000 for commonwealth law matters, which brought the total legal aid funding to $470.5 million over that period.

Law Institute president Bill O’Shea welcomed the inquiry, saying that access to commonwealth legal aid money had been a longstanding problem in Victoria.

Under the current arrangement, any commonwealth legal aid funding not used at the end of the financial year is returned to the federal government. The state government has argued that unspent money should be released for use in state matters.

Mr O’Shea said the unspent money could be used in matters involving state-based applications that involve Family Court issues, such as separating parents seeking intervention orders.

“It seems absurd to us that commonwealth legal aid is being returned to the Commonwealth unspent each year when there is such a chronic shortage of it in the state,” he said.

The Institute was planning to make a submission to the inquiry through its Criminal and Family Law Sections. Submissions were due to close in mid-August. The committee is expected to report its findings by 3 March 2004.

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