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Tuesday, 22 June 1999
Page: 7098

Mr RUDD (8:17 PM) —I rise in this debate to discuss the problem that we confront, not just in Queensland, but right across the country in relation to the adequate provision of legal aid. My attention was drawn to this most recently in the front page coverage of the Courier-Mail of Monday 21 June 1999 reporting comments by the Chief Justice of Queensland, Paul de Jersey. Chief Justice de Jersey is quoted in the Courier-Mail as having said in relation to the provision of legal aid:

The potential for miscarriages of justice has increased significantly. It must inevitably follow that miscarriages are in fact occurring.

He goes on to say, as quoted in the Courier-Mail :

We need to be extremely mindful now of the serious problems affecting the individual's access to justice.

Chief Justice de Jersey's comments follow comments in a similar vein from the Bar Association in Queensland as well as the Law Society. None of these bodies could conceivably be regarded as general fronts for the Labor Party. These reflect, I think, the gravity of the legal aid crisis which we confront in Queensland at present.

If you look at the statistics you find that the actual allocations to legal aid to Queensland by the Commonwealth in the three years between 1996 to 1999 reflect in fact an overall reduction of $4.1 million. If we look ahead, based on the numbers contained in the most recent budget papers and projections as to what the state allocation would be from 1999 and on to 2000 and 2002, we see that the reduction then would be, against the 1995-96 base, something of the order of $9.3 million. In fact, over the six years budgeted by the Howard Government, Queensland will receive $13.4 million less legal aid funding from the Commonwealth in real terms than if 1995-96 funding, the last funding under the previous Labor Government, had been maintained. That is the situation in Queensland which has led to such extraordinary comment by the Chief Justice and by other representatives of the legal fraternity in Brisbane.

What we see in Brisbane and Queensland is a reflection of what we have seen across the nation. Funding provision for legal aid has collapsed under the current government right across this country and in every state. Between 1996 and 1999 we have seen a $90.5 million reduction in the legal aid funding. Projecting ahead for the upcoming triennium 1999 through to 2002, we will see a $140 million reduction in funding. Over the six years budgeted by the Howard government, the national legal aid system will receive $230.6 million less in real terms than if 1995-96 funding levels and funding commitments had been maintained.

When we look at the Family Court, these problems dovetail with other difficulties which we have seen in the adequate provision of funding for the Attorney-General's portfolio. I return to Brisbane where we seem to have the most particular difficulties. Recent figures obtained by the Australian Labor Party show that the two registries of the Family Court, Brisbane and Parramatta, have shown delays that have blown out and are almost completely out of control. In Brisbane, standard track children's matters are now taking an average of more than 142 weeks, which is 2.75 years, from the date of filing to hearing; that is 99 weeks, almost two years, longer than they should and it is 52 weeks, one year, longer than they did as at 30 June 1998. Standard track financial matters have not fared much better, now taking 130 weeks, or 2.5 years, from the date of filing to hearing. That is 82 weeks longer than they should and 43 weeks longer than they did as at 30 June 1998.

Taken together, these statistics, as they relate to the provision of legal aid funding and adequate funding for the overall support of the Family Court system of the country, and in Queensland, in particular, all have human casualties. The problems which we face here are not simply those of accounting and budgetary allocation in Canberra. Where the rubber hits the road is in the impact on families suffering family dispute and the requirement for family settlement through the Family Court system, and right across the board in terms of the totality of legal matters as far as provision of legal aid is concerned. What I would, therefore, most appreciate hearing from the Attorney-General is what the government plans to do to redress what has become not just a problem of basic access to judicial services and legal aid for the country at large but also a fundamental question of social justice. (Time expired)