By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim
Already in Australia, over 45,000 people per year are left to represent themselves in court – often against a well-resourced and professional prosecution. It is a situation that leaves thousands vulnerable to injustice.
Now, the Commonwealth government plans to drastically cut funds to community legal centres, which will see many more denied legal assistance.
Cuts of $35 million are scheduled for the period between 2017 and 2020, equating to 30% of all Commonwealth funding.
The President of the Law Council of Australia, Fiona McLeod, has warned the cuts will force already-underfunded community legal centres (CLCs) to turn away an additional 36,000 people every year.
Ms McLeod says CLCs are already forced to turn away 160,000 people per year – a number which has risen by 30,000 in recent years.
“How many of those turned away now have exacerbated problems? How have those problems spread within their families, their social networks, their communities?” she asks.
The trend is that more people are falling into the “justice gap” – where they cannot afford private legal representation but are turned away from Legal Aid and CLCs.
A short-sighted government
The Productivity Commission has called for $200 million of additional government funding for Legal Aid and CLCs, saying the call is for purely economic reasons.
The Commission’s research suggests that denying legal advice and representation creates higher long term costs to the economy by leading to court backlogs, more appeals and costly wrongful imprisonments.
Australian law firms lead the way in pro bono work
A new report by the Australian Pro Bono Centre found that lawyers in Australia undertook an average of 34.8 hours of pro bono legal work in 2016 – 9.7 per cent more than in 2014.
The study suggests that in the seven largest law firms in Australia, pro bono work remained stable at an average of 39.4 hours per year. The rates are amongst the highest in the western world.
“The pro bono work undertaken by Australian lawyers should be a matter of enormous pride for the profession,” Ms McLeod remarked.
“But if pro bono is to be truly effective it needs a strong legal assistance sector. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services and CLCs assess cases and refer work to appropriate pro bono lawyers. Without proper funding this link is broken and many more people fall through the cracks.”
The Legal Aid Commission is also suffering from cuts in recent years, with federal funding falling from $11.22 per person in 1997 to $7.84 now.
Just 8 per cent of the adult population now qualifies for legal aid, despite 14 per cent living under the poverty line.
The situation is very different from the United States, where defendants in criminal cases are guaranteed court-appointed lawyers.
Attorney-General George Brandis has defended the proposed funding cuts.
In a speech to the Queensland Bar Association on Saturday, Mr Brandis said: “To date, there have been no cuts to payments to community legal centres by the Commonwealth government.”
“That money was money provided for under a four-year program, announced by the previous federal government in the 2013 budget, which was deliberately designed to terminate on 30 June 2017,” Brandis said. “When that program terminates that money will no longer be available.”
A coalition of family violence services and survivors has slammed the proposed cuts, accusing the government of reneging on its commitment to support those who are fleeing family violence.
The CEO of Domestic Violence NSW, Moo Baulch, remarked that government promises are hollow if they are not backed-up by adequate funding to frontline services – including CLCs.
Renee Carr, the Executive Director of community campaigning group Fair Agenda, has described the cuts as “incredibly dangerous”.
“Access to legal support is vital for women trying to escape an abuser,” she stated, adding that advice received during a legal consultation can make the difference between leaving or remaining in an abusive relationship. “A decision to cut funding for community legal services is a decision to put more women in danger.”
Former Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, wrote to the prime minister last week, saying she is “extremely concerned” that funding cuts will affect those facing family violence, child protection issues, debt and tenancy problems.
“Should these cuts take place the immediate impact to Women’s Legal Service alone will result in over 6,000 women across Australia being turned away or being unable to access legal assistance due to living in a rural, regional or remote community. This is unacceptable”, Ms Batty wrote.
Motion against cuts
The CEO of National Association of Community Legal Centres, Nassim Arrage, believes, “The federal budget represents the last formal chance for the federal government to reverse the funding cuts to CLCs before they take effect.”
A motion in the Senate, co-sponsored by the ALP, Greens and senators Jacqui Lambie and Derryn Hinch, has called on the federal government to reverse the looming funding cuts and commit to adequate and sustainable long term funding to frontline legal services.