Legal aid and community legal services provide critical support to people who find themselves with legal problems but are unable to pay the fees of private lawyers.
But it takes government funds to keep these services running.
In recognition of a growing demand within the sector, the Productivity Commission’s 2014 report on access to justice recommended that an additional $200 million a year (including $120 million a year from the federal government) be committed to legal assistance services.
But in that same year the federal government reduced legal aid funding. So it is very disappointing that, two years later, there is still no sign of the money legal assistance services need.
Insufficient funding of legal assistance services results in vulnerable individuals being denied their fundamental rights of access to justice and equality before the law.
Sustainable, adequate funding allows for long-term planning in the community legal sector, for the provision of adequate staffing and allows the sector to continue playing an important advocacy role on behalf of vulnerable individuals within our society.
Legal assistance services are already struggling under the pressure of an increased demand for their services.
Rosslyn Moss, Chair of the National Association of Community Legal Sectors, recently said that at least 160,000 people are turned away each year simply because centres don’t have the resources to help.
National Legal Aid chairwoman Susan Cox, QC further notes that “extra funding is essential because the current legal aid means test is too mean – and results in even pensioners and welfare recipients being ineligible for legal aid”.
Indeed, a large cross-section of our community is affected by a lack of funding to legal aid, such as migrant and underpaid workers, unemployed and homeless individuals, and young people.
No one chooses to get into a legal problem. They can affect anyone, at any time. You might get accused of a crime, suffer family violence, go through a difficult custody dispute, find yourself stuck in unfair contract or get mistreated at work.
If any of these things happen, and you don’t have the money to afford lawyers, you rely on legal aid and community legal centres to make sure you can get a fair result in court.
We don’t tend to think of legal assistance services in the same category as GPs, paramedics and firefighters, but they can be just as essential.
Your whole life can go off the rails if you don’t get the help you need when you need it. We can’t afford to let Australia become a place where only the wealthy can afford to get a fair hearing in court.
Maurice Blackburn is Australia’s leading class action and social justice law firm, with a longstanding engagement on important social, public policy and political issues.