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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 699

Senator REYNOLDS —Can the Minister representing the Attorney-General outline the criteria used by State offices in determining eligibility for legal aid? Can the Minister explain why even pensioners have been refused legal aid? Will the Minister request the Attorney-General to investigate the uniformity of criteria so that all Australians have equal access to legal aid?

Senator GARETH EVANS —Applicants for legal aid are required to satisfy a means test as well as a merit test, that there is merit in the applicant's case. The means test is designed to ascertain whether an applicant can afford to pay the fee that a private lawyer would charge for his particular legal problem. In determining this test, which is very rarely satisfied these days, both the income and the assets of the applicant and his or her spouse or partner are taken into account. I am informed by the Attorney that it would be most unusual for a recipient of a social security benefit not to be eligible under the income aspect of the means test applied by the various legal aid offices throughout Australia. However, it may well be that some particular beneficiary who had been denied legal aid has assets which take him or her outside the limits imposed. The Attorney is prepared to make available to the honourable senator or anyone else who is interested a booklet entitled `Who gets legal aid', which is produced by the Attorney-General's Department, setting out the various means tests and other eligibility criteria of the Australian Legal Aid Office and the Legal Aid Commissions throughout Australia. As to the practical administration of those criteria, whether there are in fact any differences in the way in which criteria are administered, I am not aware of any such differences but I will refer that part of Senator Reynolds's question to the Attorney for him to offer such advice as he is able to.

Senator REYNOLDS —Mr President, I have a supplementary question. What criteria are used in determining merit?

Senator GARETH EVANS —I think all I can do for Senator Reynolds is give her now a copy of the booklet in question. It is a matter of lawyer's judgment as to whether there is enough merit in the case to justify the expenditure of public money in supporting the application to the court in question. It is not a matter of being absolutely certain that a particular case will succeed because one can never have that degree of certainty in this or any other court system but it is a matter of having some--

Senator Durack —What about Mr Flemming?

Senator GARETH EVANS —Senator Durack may well ask about Mr Flemming. I will give him exactly the same answer I gave him yesterday. In fact, I will give him a more gentlemanly and extended answer than he deserves from the Attorney-General at the end of Question Time. The answer remains the same.