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Interview: Geoffrey Robertson, Human Rights Lawyer -

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EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Across Australia tonight, an unthinkable number of women will become the victims of domestic violence. When the time comes to confront their partners in court, many of them face the prospect of being cross-examined by their abusers with no assistance from a lawyer because they can't afford one. 9,000 people a year are being forced to represent themselves in court on a variety of matters and community legal centres say they're being forced to turn away more than 160,000 people each year who are just seeking advice. According to the Law Council, thanks to a withdrawal of funding by successive federal governments, you'll only get legal help in Australia now if you're rich or extremely poor or disadvantaged. A Productivity Commission report has recommended the Federal Government provide an immediate $120 million per year to fill the gap in legal aid services. In response, the Coalition has pledged less than 10 per cent of that - $10 million a year - for legal assistance specifically for domestic violence victims. Labor has made no announcements yet in relation to legal aid.

Last week lawyers across the country held rallies to bring attention to a problem they say has reached crisis point. They're demanding urgent action from whichever side wins the federal election.

Research by the Law Council shows Australia now spends significantly less on legal aid than most comparable justice systems. The UK, for example, spends double the amount on legal aid per capita. My guest tonight knows both jurisdictions well. He's Geoffrey Robertson, a dual British-Australian citizen and international human rights barrister and author. His Doughty Street Chambers is the largest human rights practice in Europe with 34 QCs and more than 100 barristers. 50 per cent of their cases are done pro bono or with legal aid.

Geoffrey Robertson, good to have you back on the show.


EMMA ALBERICI: Why should the parties in this election campaign prioritise legal aid over all the other competing demands on the Australian budget?

GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: They should because legal aid isn't just money for lawyers and that's immediately a turn-off. The Labour Party in particular has a great story to tell because the need for legal aid goes back to Magna Carta, the great promise 800 years ago that, "To no-one will we deny, to no-one delay justice or right." And this is the rule of law principle that everyone, no matter how poor or disadvantaged or unprepossessing, should have access to the courts for their right - not just when they're up against the law in a criminal court, but in housing and credit and domestic violence and so on. And the terrible - and the great story is that legal aid in 1948 was part of the Home for Heroes program of the amazing Attlee Government that set up the National Health Service, the National Legal Service, which made legal aid as important - access to justice as important as access to hospitals. And that's the great principle that Labour, or at least the British Labour Party introduced. And of course, with some struggle, all sides of British politics now accept it, and of course as you've said, more than twice the amount of money per head is available to the British citizen as against the Australian citizen.

And the Productivity Commission, which is pretty respected in Australia and should be, produced a very full and accurate report on how over half a million poor Australians are missing out on legal aid, have no access to justice for their own problems. And of course, the middle classes, if you've got a bit of savings or a small car or more than $300 a week, you can't go to court to assert your rights because you're - not only can't afford a lawyer, but then there is the problem of the other side's costs, which is a real deterrent. In America, they don't have the principle of awarding costs against the loser. In Australia, they do and it's a terrible deterrent to going to court. So I think that for all the election money - I mean, the Productivity Commission says $57 million will give access to justice to half a million poor Australians. Well, this government is spending $60 million on - increased $60 million in the last budget for refugee centres; they can surely make that promise that they will put half a million Australians on a level in which they can access their legal rights.

EMMA ALBERICI: The Productivity Commission also found that investing in legal aid delivers significant net savings to taxpayers. Can you give us any examples of cases you're aware of where that's particularly evident?

GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: Well that's very true. What governments and statesmen have to do, and stateswomen, is to assess the costs of not providing legal aid. If you don't provide legal aid, you get the courts clogged with litigants in person who don't know the way round increasingly complex laws on housing, landlord and tenant and so on. The result is chaos. Courts in Britain, when the legal aid budget was slashed to the bone, started to develop chaotically because they were full of people who genuinely did not know how to go about filing writs. I mean, there's a dreadful statistic in Australia from the Legal Needs Survey of 2012 which said that more Australians get legal advice from their doctors than from lawyers. Now, you wouldn't expect a lawyer to take out your appendix and I don't think you'd expect a doctor to advise you on how to take out a writ. But this is the slippery slope that we're going down as the Commonwealth and the fault - Commonwealth governments ever since the turn of the century have cut their contribution to legal aid from 50 per cent - states the other 50 - to about 30 per cent and it's been this slow attrition of money from the Commonwealth that has caused the present problem in Australia. But the cost of not providing legal aid, and lawyers are effective - they're necessary in order to show you how to go about your legal case.

EMMA ALBERICI: Geoffrey Robertson, you actually took the lead in opposing government aid cuts in Britain. We've got some vision in fact of the protests that took place at the time with barristers taking to the streets in their wigs and gowns and I understand you actually managed to have those British Government legal aid cuts reversed. How did you do that?

GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: Well this was fascinating because the Conservative government a few years ago decided to absolutely slash legal aid. This was an easy thing, they thought, because the public wouldn't be fond of lawyers. But it turned out - we put on a massive campaign, we campaigned, you can see pictures of us in our wigs and gowns closing the courts. We closed the courts for two days. It was difficult professionally for professional people to take strike action. But we did. And the result was to obtain so much public support that we changed the Government policy and it restored most of the legal aid cuts. So I'm afraid that may be necessary. I mean, I remember standing on a truck and addressing crowds outside the Department of Justice. They kept the engine running. I was almost asphyxiated. But nonetheless, it was - we all took action that was necessary to stop this attrition, to stop the depriving the poor of their right to justice.

And we're getting close to the necessity in Australia of taking very serious steps, I think. I hope the Labor Party can be reminded of their duty to the poor. After all, it's their basic claim. I hope that the conservative parties can be reminded of the danger of letting legal aid go away, slip and the enormous cost to the courts of the chaos that results and I would hope that it can either be brought back as a campaigning factor in the election, or indeed after the election that the Productivity Commission recommendation that we need - they found Australia has a justice gap, they called it quite appropriately, and to bridge that gap we need $120 million and we need to keep it bridged. So if it may be that if things get much worse, the legal profession in Australia will have to contemplate doing what was done in Britain and going on strike.

EMMA ALBERICI: And you might well need to come and hop on the back of a truck in the centre of Sydney. Geoffrey Robertson, unfortunately, we're out of time. Thank you so much.