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WA Aboriginal legal service on verge of colla -

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WA Aboriginal legal service on verge of collapse

Peter Cave reported this story on Thursday, July 16, 2009 12:33:28

PETER CAVE: The chief executive of the West Australian Aboriginal Legal Service says that legal aid
to Aboriginal people in that state is on the verge of collapse because the service's 37 lawyers are
simply overwhelmed.

Dennis Eggington says the ALS may have to withdraw its lawyers from many courts. The level of
funding of legal aid services in Australia is currently the subject of a complaint to the United
Nations Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

I asked Dennis Eggington if the threat to withdraw his lawyers from the courts was a serious one.

DENNIS EGGINGTON: Look, I think that the threat is obviously one that people should take seriously
because I think that we're going to have no alternative at the end of this particular contract with
the Commonwealth Government if we aren't able to get any extra funding.

Now I say that Peter, because currently we're funded under contract for 25 lawyers in this state
and we've currently got 37 employed and most of those, or the extras are only employed up until the
end of June 2011. So if we take the figures we would have a dozen or more lawyers out of the system
and that would really cause problems about servicing the current courts we do.

PETER CAVE: If you've only got 37 lawyers, how many clients do they have to handle each day?

DENNIS EGGINGTON: Look, we also have court officers and this is half the problem; they're a
tremendous asset to the Aboriginal Legal Service, they're paralegals but they have under state
legislation the ability to appear in magistrate's courts on minor matters.

So in places like Fitzroy Crossing, Laverton and other places, you've got court officers, not
lawyers, but court officers representing large numbers of or clients and, once again, I mean that's
justice on the cheap and, you know, many of our community members feel that they deserve to have a
qualified lawyer representing them, not a court officer.

Now I've got to say that our court officers do a wonderful job, some of them are very experienced,
but it is meaning that this current justice system in WA is being propped up by Aboriginal people
who are paralegals and representing Aboriginal people around the state.

PETER CAVE: There is a figure quoted in the newspapers this morning saying that each lawyer has to
deal with 50 clients a day; that seems almost unbelievable.

DENNIS EGGINGTON: Look, some lawyers go to places in the state and have to deal with much more than
that, in some cases up to 90 clients a day, and I tell you what, it is just injustice. There's a
terrible injustice.

If you do the figures, and even if you spent five minutes with each of those clients, you know, the
court day has come and gone, so you're really just processing criminality, you're processing
over-policing and you're not really doing justice to your client.

PETER CAVE: Is the nub of the problem the number of Aborigines being dragged before the courts, or
is a lack of funding?

DENNIS EGGINGTON: I think it's a combination of both, although, you know, there's a lack of funding
to be able to cover the current numbers of people coming to court but it also is a problem that
there are so many people coming to court.

Now, what we do need is a justice system that is built on reduction policies that are linked to
social reforms. So you've got a law and order policy that is linked to things like overcoming
poverty, overcoming disadvantage, you know, trying to deal in a very serious way with drug
problems.

The fact is is that in WA we're still building more prisons, we're still trying to create more
prison beds and if that's the philosophy that we've got then we're out policing, we're out doing
things, we're out arresting people to make that all happen and that's not where we should be going.

In a state that locks up more Aboriginal people than any other state and territory and possibly the
highest incarceration rates of Indigenous peoples, or first nation peoples in the world, we have
got a commitment to reduce that not to increase that.

PETER CAVE: Are you getting state funding?

DENNIS EGGINGTON: We do not have any state funding. We have not had any state funding in the 36
years of working in this state. We're a state-based organisation, we're incorporated under state
incorporation laws, we, you know, our employees are from the state, they work in the state. In
actual fact we've had a court ruling to say our employees are subject to state industrial relation
laws and, you know, the state doesn't give us a single cent.

It's a terrible situation where, you know, this state gets its justice system running efficiently
as it can on the very cheap because, of course, Aboriginal people make up a large percentage of all
of the justice-related issues.

PETER CAVE: What's the short-term fix, more federal funding?

DENNIS EGGINGTON: Well I think the short-term fix is to completely stop building any more prisons
and prison beds and also then government really working hard to try to look at alternatives to
incarceration, particularly diverting people from that court process through restorative justice
programs, through cautioning, through bail hostels, through work camps, all kinds of stuff,
children's safe houses.

That can happen straight away but also, obviously, if that doesn't happen then we would want the
Commonwealth to say to the State, you should now start to contribute to the Aboriginal Legal
Service in Western Australia, and all of the other states and territories where the Commonwealth
are sole funders of Aboriginal legal services or to services that give legal aid to Aboriginal
people.

PETER CAVE: Dennis Eggington the chief executive of the West Australian Aboriginal Legal Service.
We're still waiting for a response from the State Government.