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Tuesday, 4 June 2013
Page: 5244

Ms SMYTH (La Trobe) (18:45): I am very pleased this evening to be able to put some questions to the Attorney-General and the Minister for Emergency Management and later, if time allows, to the Minister for Home Affairs and Justice. Turning to the Attorney-General's portfolio, I know that there are a number of legal services that currently assist residents in and around La Trobe. They are the Eastern Community Legal Service, the Peninsula Community Legal Service and the Casey-Cardinia Community Legal Service. Each of those services does absolutely marvellous work in and around the La Trobe electorate. The assistance those services provide goes to access to justice for a whole range of people who typically are amongst the most vulnerable in our society. Like so many in this place, I have worked as a volunteer solicitor for two community legal services and I know that they do extraordinary work. They make all of their resources go that extra mile and they are not averse to trying to bring in expertise from a range of areas. They are very nimble and do their very best to assist a host of different people—the elderly, children who are at risk, those with limited English skills, people of low socio-economic backgrounds, Indigenous people, people facing mental illness, people facing disability. They really do extraordinary work. Before getting to the questions, I want to put on record my admiration for those three services that assist in my region and surrounding electorates.

There are a few questions I would like to ask this evening in relation to Community Legal Centres, but also in the same vein of access to justice—and I know that the Attorney-General, like his predecessors in this government, has focused very much on putting practical measures into place to ensure better access to justice for so many vulnerable people in our society. This follows on in the tradition of the Whitlam government, and successive Labor governments, of making a huge endeavour to initiate legal aid for people in need of assistance in 1973. Some decades on, it falls to another Labor government to sustain a system which was, as we all know very well on this side of the House, gravely undermined during the Howard government's term of office. Indeed, it was in 1997 that the savage cuts to legal aid were embarked upon by the Howard government and, while that seems like a long time ago, those savage cuts sustained incredible damage to the legal aid system in Australia and it has been left to subsequent Labor governments to restore the funding progressively to legal aid to ensure that people are provided with the legal aid and access to the justice safety net that we as Labor people support in the context of so many social reforms.

I note in the Attorney-General's introductory remarks that a good deal has been done even in the context of this budget of tight financial circumstances to focus once again financial measures which assist in providing access to justice. I know that this builds on the work that was done in 2010 by former Attorney-General Robert McClelland in terms of providing additional funds in that area. So I would ask the Attorney-General, firstly in relation to community legal centres, how broadly they will benefit from this year's budget and why he feels that this is particularly important to our local communities, as I do. In addition, I know that the Attorney has spoken about increases to funding for legal aid through this year's budget. I wonder if he could remark on the impacts that he expects that will have in terms of families and individuals, such as those in my electorate who need access to justice and getting a fair go.