A peak law body has called on Attorney-General George Brandis to release the findings of a Productivity Commission inquiry which recommends the government reverse funding cuts to community legal centres.
The commission’s report was completed in September but may not be released until next year, despite intense interest in its recommendations from the legal profession and consumer advocates.
It is understood that the Productivity Commission has recommended that the Abbott government retain funding for policy work performed by community legal centres.
Earlier this year, the government amended the funding agreements of 140 legal centres to include a ban on Commonwealth money being used for policy research and advocacy.
But the Productivity Commission has argued against the ban on grounds that policy work by community legal centres has been shown to ease caseloads in the court system.
Peak law groups such as the Law Council of Australia and the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) have been lobbying for the government to maintain support for community legal centres.
Mark Woods, the chair of the LIV’s access to justice committee, wants the report to be released immediately so that the funding problems affecting community legal centres can be canvassed openly with the Attorney-General.
“We are eagerly awaiting the release of the commission’s report,” he told The New Daily.
“The government has a responsibility to respond positively to the recommendations made by the Productivity Commission.
“And that’s what we would like to see.”
Mr Woods said community lawyers played a critical role in supporting low income and vulnerable people to get access to legal services.
“We think the research and advocacy roles of community legal centres are equally important and cannot understand why Commonwealth money cannot be used for such purposes,” he said.
“It’s not reasonable for volunteer legal staff to be prevented from using money for policy development and public advocacy. It’s just silly.”
Mr Woods warned that dismantling the advocacy role of community legal centres would cut off a vital mechanism for reform and result in greater costs to government in the future.
“When weak laws are not reformed, then more money will be required down the track to fund a greater number of civil cases than otherwise would be the case,” he said.
‘Legal centres essential’
Australia’s peak consumer advocate CHOICE also weighed into the funding debate, calling on the government to relax the new ban on advocacy funding.
“Community legal services have practical knowledge of the problems experienced by Australia’s most vulnerable citizens,” said CHOICE spokesman Tom Godfrey.
“It’s essential that they’re able to call for big-picture legal and policy change as well as address individual cases.”
Gerard Brody, the chief executive of the Melbourne-based Consumer Action Law Centre (CALC) said the new funding rules would retard the work of many community lawyers.
One of the CALC’s big wins for consumers in recent years stemmed from a joint research study with Deakin University.
The study led to a ban on unsolicited letters from banks offering to raise limits on credit cards.
“We would not be able to conduct that type of work if all of our funding was subject to the Commonwealth government’s new conditions,” Mr Brody said.
Attorney-General George Brandis has been contacted for comment.