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Call for $200 million boost to legal aid

Briefs

Cite as: Jan/Feb 2015 89 (1/2) LIJ, p.13

An urgent fiscal response to the Productivity Commission's wide-ranging report on access to justice is needed, say Australia's legal service providers. 

Providers are calling for the federal government to promptly implement the report’s sweeping recommendations, including a $200 million per annum increase in funding for legal assistance services around Australia, with a focus on civil matters, including family law.

The 980-page report (http://tinyurl.com/oelrj7m) also recommended a review of the means test for legal aid eligibility, legal insurance for the public, recovery of costs for pro bono services, a single contact point for legal assistance and referral, consistently applied protective costs orders deemed to be in the public interest and a reversal of $40 million-plus in proposed cuts across the legal services sector nationally. The National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Program for battered Aboriginal women is set to be axed on 30 June under the proposed cuts.

Convenor of the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum Antoinette Braybrook said Aboriginal women remain the most legally disadvantaged in Australia today. “The defunding of this program is very concerning. The annual cost of violence against Aboriginal women has been projected to reach $2.2 billion in the next seven years and this does not include the flow-on of the impact on their children,” Ms Braybook said.

The Forum joined with National Legal Aid, the National Association of Community Legal Centres, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, the Law Council of Australia (LCA) as well as the LIV in welcoming the report which was released on 3 December.

In its report, the Productivity Commission said disadvantaged Australians are “more susceptible to, and less equipped to deal with, legal disputes” and that “numerous studies show that efficient government funded legal services generate net benefit to the community”.

A funding injection of the magnitude recommended would see an extra 400,000 Australians able to access legal aid, said National Legal Aid’s Bevan Warner, adding the Commission was independent and had provided a credible economic analysis of the value of legal aid.

“It’s not a report by legal academics or the sector itself talking about the work that we do. It’s a landmark report, a blueprint for the future. This is the country’s premier economic think-tank saying it makes economic sense and provides fairer access to justice . . . [and] practical legal help.

“Practical legal help keeps people safe, it keeps people in their homes. It helps people to obtain and keep income support. It provides practical everyday support to help people resolve issues. awyers are part of the solution, not the problem.”

LCA spokesperson Fiona McLeod SC said delivering justice was compromised while legal aid was underfunded. “The report indicates that every dollar spent on legal aid results in a benefit downstream of $1.60 to $2.25 in savings.”

National Association of Community Legal Centres chair Michael Smith said: “The jury is in. There is a huge crisis in legal help across the country. There are state and territory governments not pulling their weight and the Commonwealth can do far more. We need a real national partnership to deal with this crisis in legal help”.

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Service chair Shane Duffy said: “We support the report’s recommendation of reversal of proposed cuts of $40 million. There is a huge level of unmet legal need out there, rather than cutting funding the government should be increasing it”.

The LIV has lobbied for greater access to justice for individuals to meet unmet legal need in a number of submissions and when appearing before the Productivity Commission inquiry. It will give the report a detailed review.

2014 LIV president Geoff Bowyer said: “The LIV urges the federal and state governments to consider the best way forward. One thing is clear. It is unfair to exclude more and more people each year from access to justice because they cannot afford access to justice or do not qualify for legal aid”.

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