17 May 2011
Legal access to justice is fundamental
A properly funded legal aid and community legal system is essential for all Australians to be able to access their rights.
Twelve months ago, in the May 2010 budget, the Commonwealth announced increased legal assistance funding for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our community. The 2011 budget last week confirmed that last year's increase to legal aid was only a one-off ("Budget short on legal assistance funds", May 13). Legal aid funding levels are insufficient to resolve the access-to- justice crisis across Australia. Too many people miss out on advice and representation. Even with 2010's one-off increase, the funding for legal aid remains $20 million a year below 1997 levels. As the commonwealth's Access to Justice Taskforce reported in September 2009, there has been a 78 percent reduction in the availability of legal aid for civil law matters since 1995-1996.
The vast majority of people who the community reasonably might expect to qualify for legal aid due to their socio-economic circumstances, in fact cannot access legal aid to enforce their legal rights. Across the country, people are both unable to afford a lawyer and ineligible for legal aid. This is particularly challenging in regional, rural and remote communities, where legal advice alternatives are rare or non-existent, and in areas like employment law, where specialist community legal resources have been stretched too thinly.
Pro bono is not the solution to ensuring comprehensive access to justice system. The leading pro bono firms are already stretched to capacity, and can meet only a tiny fraction of legal need. Last year Clayton Utz provided 40,000 hours of pro bono legal assistance, and it is unlikely that we can expand that practice much further. Even at these levels, large pro bono law practices cannot begin to fill the access-to-justice gaps.
A properly funded legal aid and community legal system, where a person with a legal problem can be assisted by a legal provider with the ability and skills to achieve a solution, is essential for all Australians to be able to access their rights.
This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review, 17 May 2011