Legal Assistance Sector Facing Federal Budget 'Disaster'
23 March 2017 at 3:14 pm
Even with the average Australian lawyer contributing a full week of work every year for free, it’s not enough to fix Australia’s legal assistance funding crisis, which is set to dramatically deepen after the federal budget, the legal peak body has warned.
Law Council of Australia president Fiona McLeod told the sixth National Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference in Adelaide on Thursday that although the crisis in legal assistance funding had been steadily worsening over two decades, drastic cuts to take effect from 1 July this year would be particularly disastrous.
“Scheduled funding cuts to community legal centres (CLCs) will amount to a loss of $35 million between 2017 and 2020 – that’s a 30 per cent cut to Commonwealth funding for services that are already chronically under-resourced,” McLeod said.
“Last year CLCs were forced to turn away 160,000 people seeking legal assistance. These cuts will lead to 36,000 fewer clients assisted, and 46,000 fewer advices provided.
“We are talking here about real people, with real problems. People who thought their situation was serious enough to seek legal assistance. People who would not have had other viable options for legal advice.
“How many of those turned away now have exacerbated problems? How have those problems spread within their families, their social networks, their communities?
“The Productivity Commission has called for an extra $200 million for legal assistance, because research shows these problems cost the economy long term. Legal problems are a lot like medical problems – without prompt attention they tend to get much worse.
“The government needs to listen to the experts and reverse these catastrophic cuts.”
McLeod said that pro bono cannot be a substitute for properly funded legal aid services.
On Wednesday a new report by the Australian Pro Bono (Law) Centre found lawyers in large law firms in Australia averaged 34.8 hours of pro bono legal work in 2016 – 9.7 per cent more than in 2014.
The study found that in the seven largest firms in Australia (more than 450 lawyers), pro bono performance remained generally stable at an average of 39.4 hours.
“A key driver of this growth is the rising unmet legal need of asylum seekers,” the report said.
“The pro bono work undertaken by Australian lawyers should be a matter of enormous pride for the profession,” McLeod said.
“Australian lawyers give away literally hundreds of thousands of pro bono work hours every year to those who have no one else to turn to. Thirty-five hours of pro bono legal services, per lawyer, per year.
“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.”
In 2016 a legal census by the National Association of Community Legal Centres found that as many as 160,000 Australians were turned away from CLCs in 2014/15 – up by at least 30,000 from the previous census.
The census results come as CLCs face another 30 per cent cut to Commonwealth funding of $12.1 million from 1 July 2017.
On Monday 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.
National Association of Community Legal Centres CEO Nassim Arrage said: “The federal budget represents the last formal chance for the federal government to reverse the funding cuts to CLCs before they take effect.
“This show of Senate support in the last sitting week before the budget is welcome and builds on the support from pro bono firms, law societies, law deans, domestic violence services, churches and others.”
However Attorney-General George Brandis defended the government’s funding of CLCs. In a speech to the Queensland Bar Association on Saturday Brandis said: “It is the governments of the states and territories which are the principal funders of legal assistance in Australia.
“To date, there have been no cuts to payments to community legal centres by the Commonwealth government. It has been claimed by some that the government is withdrawing $6.8 million annually. That claim is misleading.
“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. When that program terminates that money will no longer be available.”
He said the federal government had however provided an additional $45 million for frontline legal assistance services to support victims of family violence through the Women’s Safety Package and the Third Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.
“This is not a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul; this is new money for new services, including $20 million for domestic violence units and health-justice partnerships, of which $16.5 million is going directly to the community legal centres themselves,” he said.