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Tuesday, 31 May 1994
Page: 972


Senator ABETZ (7.07 p.m.) —by leave—As we are talking on the Access to justice report, and as a practising legal practitioner, I know only too well the unfortunate cost and delay associated with the provision of justice in our country. Legal aid clearly as an institution or as a public service body I believe is embarking on an empire-building exercise in continually restricting private practitioners. I trust that the report Access to justice will to a certain extent overcome some of those problems.

  I am also very well aware of the role that big bureaucracy and big government can play in seeking to deny justice to ordinary Australians. From my own experience in private practice I recall a client who was a public servant coming to see me with a claim by his employing department which was seeking to reclaim approximately $1,500 for back rent, cleaning of a property and other miscellaneous items many months after he had vacated the place leased by him from the relevant department. What had occurred was that the department had accidentally undercharged for the lease and was seeking to retrospectively reclaim the money by docking wages.

  After having corresponded with the department, letters going to and fro, and completely inexplicable delays on the part of either the department or the Attorney-General's Department that was providing the advice, I finally received a fax on behalf of my client after some considerable months with an account accidentally attached to it indicating how much the Attorney-General's Department was charging for its legal advice to this particular department. The account was for $1,200 and that was received about halfway through the protracted negotiations which ended up by my client not being required to pay a single cent. I remind the Senate that the matter involved a $1,500 account and that, at about halfway through, the Attorney-General's Department had already run up a bill of $1,200.


Senator Panizza —What was your account?


Senator ABETZ —My mate, Senator Panizza, is asking what my account was. I am pleased to say that, at the very end of it, and having been completely successful, my client received an account of $600. The cost to the actual department would have been fourfold that to my client. But, of course, it had the capacity to send lawyers off researching and doing all sorts of things without any concern whatsoever as to the actual cost of obtaining the advice and seeking to cover up what was, undoubtedly, a departmental mistake.

  This is a prime, real life example of a department trying it on at great expense without exercising any proper commercial judgment in the matter. I hope that the government, in its alleged concern over the cost of justice, will hasten the pace of untying departments from the Australian Government Solicitor and the Attorney-General's Department, allowing them to obtain commonsense and commercial advice.

  The government is allegedly committed to untying departments from the use of the Australian Government Solicitor, yet I note that in the latest issue of Upfront, the internal paper for the staff of the Attorney-General's Department, we have a photograph showing the smiling faces of Dale Boucher and Garry Jones signing up a large deal between the Attorney-General's Department and the Department of Defence, in effect putting a halt to the untying and freeing up of legal services until 30 June 1996.

  It should be noted that the Department of Defence is one of the largest users of legal services in the Commonwealth. The deal provides the Attorney-General's Department extra time to get its house in order prior to the full implementation of the user pays system.

  In the state of Tasmania we have a fused profession; I and many of my colleagues act as both solicitor and barrister. I believe it affords a considerable saving to clients and is something that should be pursued and followed by the profession in other states. I believe that access to justice is a very real issue and one that needs to be continually addressed.