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Home truths

Home truths

By Ashlea Hawkins

Access to Justice Justice Practice & Procedure 


Only 8 per cent of households would meet the means test for legal aid. As lawyers, we know that by engaging in pro bono work we help vulnerable individuals who are otherwise excluded from the legal system to gain access to justice. But who are the people we are helping and why do they need free legal assistance? Largely, we help the ever-growing “missing middle”. These are low and middle income individuals and families who, because of their income and assets, are not eligible for a grant of legal aid or whose legal issues are such that the limited resources of community legal centres mean they are unable to access legal help. These people might own a home with a mortgage, they might be older and own their home outright and survive on the aged-pension. They might also be a single parent or from a culturally and linguistically diverse community. The Productivity Commission’s Report into Access to Justice Arrangements 1 estimated that only 8 per cent of households would meet the means test for legal aid. The Productivity Commission found that the legal issues faced by those in the middle relate to housing, employment and consumer law and these remain significant areas of unmet legal demand. Barriers for accessing justice include costs associated with legal proceedings including the risk of adverse costs and the complexity of court processes and procedures. Lawyers help the missing middle by taking referrals from organisations such as Justice Connect. This has traditionally involved end-to-end assistance. In addition, lawyers can participate in programs that provide “unbundled” free legal assistance to individuals – a growing trend. Unbundling is a half-way house between full representation and no representation. It is particularly effective in providing assistance to unrepresented litigants and means we can help more people. At Justice Connect, we provide unbundled free legal help through our federal Self Representation Service and Victorian Domestic Building Legal Service. In the domestic building space, we want to prevent homeowners from losing their homes, or having a defective home that they can’t live in because they either don’t know their rights or can’t afford to take steps to protect those rights. Ashlea Hawkins is the manager and principal lawyer of Justice Connect’s Domestic Building Legal Service. 1. December 2014, www.pc.gov.au/inquiries/completed/access-justice/report. Looking to help? To find pro bono opportunities for your firm see www.justiceconnect.org.au/get-involved, which also manages the LIV’s pro bono Legal Assistance Service. For solicitors: talk to your pro bono coordinator or the person responsible for pro bono work at your firm or see www.fclc.org.au/cb_pages/careers_and_getting_involved.php. For barristers: see www.vicbar.com.au/social-justice/pro-bono.

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