Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts. These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
Law Council concerned legal aid becoming 'unviable' -

View in ParlViewView other Segments

MARK COLVIN: The Law Council of Australia says Legal Aid is becoming 'unviable' because too many poorer Australians are being denied free legal assistance.

Legal aid commissions say they had to turn away about 88,000 eligible clients in the last five years because of funding shortfalls.

The Law Council is urging the Federal Government to increase funding to legal aid commissions by 15 per cent.

Bridget Brennan reports.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: For thousands of people who can't afford a lawyer, Legal Aid is the first port of call.

But Law Council of Australia president, Stuart Clark, is concerned legal aid services are struggling to meet those calls for help.

STUART CLARK: The state of Legal Aid funding in Australia, and therefore the state of access to justice in Australia for the most vulnerable Australians, is at an absolute point of crisis.

The past 20 years have seen governments, both Liberal and Labor, successively cut and cut and cut Legal Aid funding to the stage where it is virtually unviable.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: The chairwoman of National Legal Aid, Gabrielle Canny, estimates about 88,000 Australians have been denied legal aid in the last five years.

That doesn't include people who were turned away before they even made an application for assistance.

GABRIELLE CANNY: The disappointing thing about these figures is whilst they're very large, they in fact in reality are much larger, because many people don't even bother filling in the form for Legal Aid, because they're advised that they probably won't get it.

And so it's many more than say you know 88,000 people around Australia who are actually missing out on Legal Aid.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: Who are the people that are missing out?

GABRIELLE CANNY: The people who are missing out are generally people with family law issues, and so they may have, you know, the family is in crisis, it's disintegrating.

They have to go to court, they're not the people who are able to sort of solve the issues for themselves, they're also people stuck in the domestic violence cycle, they really need practical legal help to get out of that cycle.

They're people who are unfortunately facing elder abuse, which is becoming much more common in the community.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: The Law Council claims that in the last 20 years, Labor and Coalition federal governments have scaled back funding for Legal Aid, and the states and territories now collectively fund 65 per cent of services.

But a spokeswoman for the Attorney-General George Brandis says state and territory governments should make a greater contribution, because state criminal matters account for the vast majority of Legal Aid work.

In this financial year, the Turnbull Government will spend about $208 million on Legal Aid.

Stuart Clark from the Law Council wants the Government to commit to boost its Legal Aid budget by 15 per cent.

STUART CLARK: We accept that the Government will have to make hard decisions in terms of where the available money can be utilised, but the point is this: there are actually savings in the long term to be made to the overall cost to the community by increasing Legal Aid.

I know that sounds a bit strange, but if you think about it, the cost to government agencies for cases that run on longer, the costs for the prosecution that run on longer, where the accused, or where the litigants are self-represented because they can't get access to Legal Aid, has to be paid by the Government.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: Community legal services don't provide legal aid, but are also unable to meet demand for legal help.

Funds for those centres are on the chopping block - they'll face a 30 per cent cut to services around the country next June.

Liana Buchanan is from the Federation of Community Legal Centres.

LIANA BUCHANAN: Community legal centres already run often on the smell of an oily rag, so we're absolutely looking at some centres that will not be able to keep open, we're looking at some centres that will have to stop providing duty lawyer services, for example for family violence clients in certain courts; outreach offices having to close down, lawyers being sacked.

The bottom line is the services these centres now provide will have to be cut back, and they're already not enough for the most disadvantaged people in our community.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: A spokeswoman for the Attorney-General George Brandis says the Government has committed $1.6 billion over the next five years to Legal Aid commissions, community legal centres, and Indigenous legal assistance services.

MARK COLVIN: Bridget Brennan.