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Wednesday, 10 November 1976

Mr ELLICOTT (WENTWORTH, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Attorney-General) - As honourable members are aware, for some months I have been attempting to get the New South Wales Attorney-General to agree to establish a legal aid commission in New South Wales. That is the policy of this Government, and I am hoping that that AttorneyGeneral is still sincere when he tells me that he is thinking about it. However, having seen the report, I am beginning to wonder whether he is because he consistently says that the Government wants to close the Australian Legal Aid Office and to opt out of legal aid. Statements in the report such as those which are attributed to State ministers are absolutely incorrect. The fact is that this year the Government has increased the appropriation for legal aid by some 25 per cent. I myself have given a personal commitment to the legal aid officers that in any attempt to set up a legal aid commission their position would be preserved. I have given that assurance to officers not only in New South Wales but in every State and Territory of the Commonwealth. At this very time officers of my Department are having close discussions with officers in Western Australia with a view to coming to an agreement in relation to setting up a legal aid commission in Western Australia.

I have given some consideration to the question of having somebody inquire as to the activity in the Legal Aid Office in Sydney. Let me say this about it so that there will be no misunderstanding: First of all, honourable members will recall that the Legal Aid Office was set up by the previous Government by pushing Legal Aid Office lawyers onto empty floors of buildings in most cases, and they were told to go ahead and administer legal aid. When the ALAO was taken over by this Government it was in a state of confusion. In addition, in that period a great deal of misunderstanding existed between the private profession and the Legal Aid Office. The reason for that was that the previous Government did not bring the Office into force in a state of understanding. My approach and that of the Government has been to attempt to achieve that understanding. If there is an inquiry in relation to the Legal Aid Office in Sydney, the purpose of it will simply be to establish a working relationship between the Office and the private profession in New South Wales. If the Office is to be handed over to a legal aid commission set up by the 2 Governments it will be done in a way that will ensure that there is that understanding.

Furthermore, I think it is important to understand that a legal aid office is rather like a large firm of solicitors. Activities and practices which are used in large firms of solicitors can be used in a legal aid office. If an inquiry is to be held, its purpose would simply be to report on the building of that relationship to which I referred and to indicate what sorts of procedures might be adopted, if any, to improve the efficiency of the Office. As to the man mentioned, may I say that Mr Loxton was the President of the Law Society of New South Wales. He was closely associated with establishing the Mount Druitt Legal Aid Office in Mount Druitt, Sydney. He was also associated with establishing the Law Society's legal aid scheme. I do not accept the criticism that has been made in relation to him, that is, that he is an opponent of the salaried service. I do not accept it at all. He is not such an opponent and his activity in relation to legal aid has shown that he has a real sympathy for setting up legal aid offices in places where people are disadvantaged.

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