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Tuesday, 16 November 1976

Mr NEIL (St George) -The Opposition has failed utterly to establish the case which is obviously based upon a claim of subterfuge by this Government. It has failed on 3 grounds. Firstly, the Government's plans have been well known to the Opposition for a long period. Secondly, the Opposition has conceded the need, as the honourable member for Kingsford-Smith (Mr Lionel Bowen) told us, for a nationally co-ordinated legal aid system. The honourable member full well knows that in a federal system with 2 different sets of jurisdictions, plus all the confusion that we have had in the recent past, the only way in which a nationally co-ordinated system is going to work is through a federalist type of plan- through the type of plan that has been suggested and put forward by the Attorney-General (Mr Ellicott). Thirdly, the Opposition agrees that there has been a great deal of confusion in respect of legal aid throughout Australia, particularly in New South Wales.

It has been said that there were 7 or 8 different schemes in New South Wales to which people could go. The Australian Legal Aid Office provided a useful function in its time but all of these schemes added up to confusion. The overall answer was to streamline the procedures. I do not in any way criticise the people who work in the Austraiian Legal Aid Office because I believe that most of them have done an extremely valuable job and that they are extremely dedicated people. But the Austraiian legal aid commissions put forward by the Attorney-General constitute the only streamlined sensible practical proposal that will provide proper legal aid to the people of Australia, and it is the people of Australia who count. The last people who should be arguing the toss about these matters are lawyers who have gone into politics and have sought to use this topic as one of political argie-bargie from one side of the chamber to the other.

When we look at the present situation we see that the Australian Legal Aid Office is still continuing. The funds for the Office have increased this year. An amount of $20m is allotted under the appropriation for 1976-77 as against $ 16.2m last year. That is an increase well above the inflation rate. We see the inaccuracies, to say the least, of the Labor Party's approach in which it claimed that this is an attempt to hand over to the private profession when we realise in the last month of the Labor Party's term of office $lm a month of Australian Legal Aid Office funds went to the private profession, and that process is continuing at approximately the same rate. Australian legal aid offices are now interviewing more people on average per month than they did under the Labor Government.

The present Government is determined to ensure that if the State legal aid commissions are set up the Australian legal aid offices and their staff will be retained and will properly be able to continue the services that they already provide. The Attorney-General has given clear undertakings and clear guarantees to ensure that that will be the case. It is quite open to individual States to have a slightly different structure in respect of their legal aid commission. I have no doubt that if the New South Wales Attorney-General sat down with the Federal Attorney-General a scheme could properly be hammered out that would take into account the situation in that State. New South Wales historically has had a public solicitor scheme and a public defender scheme. These schemes have provided very valuable services. At times, they have been overworked. There are some public defenders who have attended 80 trials a year. This is far too many cases for one man to have to prepare and conduct in one year. I have no doubt that if the New South Wales Government was prepared to negotiate as to what type of commission would be acceptable to both the Federal Government and the State Government a commission could be set up that would be representative of all proper groups. The professions would be represented. The State Government would have representatives as would the Federal Government. Obviously consumer affairs bodies ought to have some representation. There may be other groups that ought to be represented on such a commission. If this happened the problems to which the honourable member for KingsfordSmith referred could easily be solved.

The honourable member talked about jurisdictional problems. These problems will be solved by co-ordination within proper commissions in a federal system of legal aid. The honourable member for Kingsford-Smith talked about forum shopping. We will get a lot more coordination by the system proposed by the Attorney-General than is the case under the present situation in which one has to forum shop from street to street. Under the present system a person can go into a legal aid office and be told that the matter he has raised is not a Federal matter. He may be told: 'We cannot assist you, Sir. You will have to go down the street to- well, now, wait till I look up the book'. The officers often have to look up a book to see to whom to send the client. Clients might be sent to the Public Solicitor. They might be sent to the Law Society. They might be sent down to the Divorce Court, where, I think, the family law aspect of legal aid is administered. A person might be sent to one of the 4 or 5 different places. There is also the New South Wales Legal Aid Commissioner, who carries certain important functions.

A person should be able to walk into one central office in the city of Sydney or into regional offices within the suburbs and towns in which the administration is tailored to the needs of the client. The administration should enable an officer to put his finger on the problem and should enable the client to have the best and most efficient legal representation thereafter, be it through the services of the salaried officers, if it is an appropriate matter, or through the services of the private profession, if it is an appropriate matter. This service should be provided, be it in the courts of petty sessions, the industrial commissions, the courts of appeal or any other court throughout the vast range of courts and tribunals that exist.

The Opposition sought to make some play of the tory approach to legal aid, as it was called. Members on this side of the House are fully committed to the interests of the individual first and foremost in this problem. The former Liberal government in New South Wales, which the Opposition would call a tory government, was responsible in that State for some of the most far reaching innovations that any government in the English speaking world has introduced. It established the Law Reform Commission. It established a trust system, whereby moneys could be used for legal aid, a legal education and a legal foundation. Thanks to the legislation enacted by the former Liberal Government of New South Wales, there is now a college of law in Sydney to replace the ancient articles system. It established consumer claims tribunals to assist the individual. It established the office of Ombudsman, the State Pollution Control Commission, the Corporate Affairs Commission and the Privacy Committee. It had night courts in the pipeline to help take the financial burden off people by enabling them to attend at nights and not have to take time off work. This is a definite way to ease the financial burden of the individual.

The honourable member for Kingsford-Smith mentioned the situation in the various States. I do not know the situation in all of the States; I am more familiar with the position in New South Wales. The honourable member gave the lie to the honourable member for Grayndler (Mr Anthony Whitlam) who talked about handing over this function to the private profession. The honourable member for Kingsford-Smith, in his plea for a nationally co-ordinated legal system, pointed out that in South Australia there has not been a full sell-out to the private profession. Nor should there be a sell-out one way or the other. It is quite inappropriate to talk in terms of sell-outs. If a system has been worked out in South Australia to which the honourable member for Kingsford-Smith gives at least qualified approval, there is absolutely no reason why cooperation would not produce a proper system in New South Wales.

What situation exists in that State? There is an Attorney-General who seems to refuse to assist at all. He seems to have a sincere commitment to legal aid but he also seems to have some sort of paranoia about the private profession, of which he has been a member for many years and of which many other Labor lawyers have been members. I do not quite understand why, when many of these Labor lawyers go into politics, they suddenly turn round and want to criticise and destroy the private profession that fed them for many years. They should be adopting a sensible approach towards co-operation between the private and governmental professions.

Mr Wran,the Premier of New South Wales, has gone to the extent of heaping abuse upon the scheme of the Law Society in New South Wales. This action is most unbecoming. There is no hope for the individual client while politics are used to seek advantage for one party or another. We can have a forward looking system of legal aid in this country. We can solve many of the still very vexed problems. The problems are still very urgent because the range of services provided by the Legal Aid Office still needs improvement. We still need to be able to see that every person before the Courts receives fair representation. One has a better chance if one is represented. It is an undoubted fact that the system needs improvement. The scheme proposed by the Attorney-General if brought to fruition, will undoubtedly give us a co-ordinated, sensible legal aid scheme serving the interests of the people of Australia.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lucock)Order!The discussion is now concluded.

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