Sydney Criminal Lawyers is building a website where those who fall into the ‘justice gap’ can link up with Australian solicitors and barristers who are prepared to provide their services free of charge, or at a significantly reduced rate.
What is the ‘justice gap’?
As reported in previous blogs, tens of thousands of people are left to represent themselves in court each year because they cannot afford a private lawyer, but are ineligible for legal aid.
These people fall into the ‘justice gap’ – which is growing in Australia every year.
In criminal cases, this can mean an accused person has no choice but to defend themselves against well-resourced, professional prosecutors with investigators and a whole host of experts at their disposal.
Needless to say, this can lead to unjust outcomes – whether by forcing innocent people to plead guilty to offences they did not commit, or losing cases which might have been won with the assistance of a good defence lawyer.
Indeed, the situation is Australia is unlike a number of other countries including the United States, where defendants who cannot afford legal representation are guaranteed a court appointed lawyer.
Criminal law is not the only area where the ‘justice gap’ can lead to injustice – wealth disparities can lead to unfair outcomes in family law, civil law, employment and a range of other case-types. There may even be matters of special interest to lawyers – such as recent laws which remove legal safeguards and protections, and appear to have questionable constitutional validity.
How will it work?
The website will rely heavily on the goodwill of Australian solicitors and barristers, who will be able to register their location and area of expertise. Initial feedback is very positive, with a number of lawyers already expressing interest.
Those with legal problems will be able to enter their location, the area of law, their personal details including telephone number and email, details of their legal issue (including uploading basic documents such as court attendance notice), a basic outline of the work they would like undertaken and what they can afford to pay, if anything.
Those details will be emailed to appropriate participating lawyers who can then decide whether to make contact.
Preference may be given to those who have been refused legal aid and supply evidence of low income, but whether or not to accept a matter will be at the discretion of participating lawyers.
The initiative will be different from the Law Society’s Pro Bono Scheme in that both solicitors and barristers will be able to register, rather than just solicitors, and a person’s matter may be accepted even though it does not meet the criteria of that Scheme.
When will it happen?
Unfortunately, a site like this cannot be built overnight – but with the crucial cooperation of generous solicitors and barristers – we see no reason why it cannot be up and running by year’s end.
We hope the project will go some way towards bridging the justice gap, and show the public that Australian lawyers are willing to volunteer their valuable time and resources to assist the community.