Legal Aid in Crisis: 45,000 Forced to Represent Themselves in Court


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.”

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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.


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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney's leading firm of criminal and traffic defence lawyers.

2 comments

  1. SIMON

    As the gap grows between the poor and wealthy and considering extended police powers, there is going to be an expanding need for legal aid. One could wonder is this healthily conducive to the imminent acceleration of private prison systems.

  2. Michael Sanderson

    I read your article with some interest.

    Although I have no issues with the statistics, I believe the primary cause is not the lack of Legal aid; rather it is price and equity. The Law Council of Australia’s “Inquiry into the Access to Justice Arrangements” states as one of the reasons why individuals find it difficult to defend themselves is they “…may not have emotional objectivity or distance, and be overly passionate about their case..” (Refer page 63 item 248 (VI). Might I suggest that the legal profession suffer the same affliction when it comes to identifying the underlying cause of this country’s legal crisis?

    On the 9th of May 2016 I sent a letter to the Labor party, the Greens and NXT because of their support for a royal commission into the finance sector. The solution articulated would boost Legal Aid at no cost to the public purse and would be proportionate.

    Finally, on the 29th of March as a self-litigant with no legal assistance, I argued in the Brisbane Supreme Court of Appeal to have a common law principle called “Equality of Arms” included in Australian case law, a judgement is still pending. As part of my argument I cited the “Law Council of Australia” produced “Inquiry into Access to Justice Arrangements” for the “Productivity Commission” and “Community Law Australia” produced report titled “Unaffordable and out of reach”, both of which you refer to in your article. It is my belief that if successful a degree of equity will be established in our legal system. If not successful it is my intention to seek leave from the high court, no doubt as a self-litigant, because it would seem the principle of “Equality of Arms” is of little importance to the legal profession, only more money.

    I have emailed you additional information.

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