The Law Council of Australia has created a campaign called ‘Legal Aid Matters’, aiming to pressure governments into providing sufficient funding for legal aid services. The Council says:
“At least 45,000 Australians have been forced to represent themselves in court, often up against powerful and well-funded legal teams, due to the crisis in legal aid that has seen hundreds of millions of dollars ripped from these vital services.”
It notes that a growing number of people are falling into the ‘justice gap’, where they are unable to afford private legal representation but ineligible for Legal Aid. It believes the current state of affairs is ‘destroying lives’.
Legal Aid in Crisis
Legal Aid has suffered from chronic underfunding for years.
In 2009, the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee highlighted the issue of underfunding, saying “at present, Australian Government funding levels are not adequate, and inhibit access to justice, including legal representation.”
A 2014 Productivity Commission Report recommended funding for Legal Aid be boosted by $200 million.
Last year, the Government pledged $25 million over two years for Legal Aid and other community legal services, but the Law Council says this is not enough, calling for $350 million of desperately needed funds to fix the service.
Government funding has failed to keep up with growing demand, and the Legal Aid system is now so stretched that it is struggling to provide basic services.
In 2014/15 alone, the service assisted 900,000 Australians, but insufficient funding meant the organisation had to introduce stricter means and merits testing, rendering large numbers of people ineligible for assistance.
This means many Australians, those who fall into the justice gap, end up with no choice but to represent themselves, increasing the prospects of wrongful convictions and innocent people feeling they have no choice but to plead guilty in criminal cases, and unjust outcomes in family law, employment law and civil law cases.
Legal Costs Unachievable for Many
In 2012, Community Law Australia released a report outlining estimated legal costs for common categories of court cases.
Based on 2008 figures, the report found that the average cost of a family court case for an applicant was $6,500, and the average cost for the respondent was almost $9,000.
The report commented that “…For a mother escaping a violent partner and trying to protect herself and her children with an intervention order and appropriate family law orders…., the costs of paying for advice and taking action can be extremely prohibitive.”
The cost to defend against criminal prosecutions can be equally prohibitive. But unlike in the US, Australian defendants are not guaranteed a lawyer if they cannot afford one.
We live in a society where our democratic safeguards and liberties are supposed to be protected – where everyone should have access to legal representation, especially where they are up against a well-resourced prosecution and have their liberty at risk.
To this end, the Law Council has called upon government to ensure that all Australians have access to legal representation, to guard against injustice and help restore confidence in a failing system.