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Thursday, 14 November 1974
Page: 2391


Senator CHANEY (Western Australia) - I think that most honourable senators on this side of the chamber would agree with the comments that have been made earlier, that the Government is to be congratulated for the additional emphasis it has placed on legal aid. This is one of the fields- there are more than one- in which the Government has, in a very healthy manner, added emphasis to community trends. I believe that there was a trend in the community before this Government came into office that was providing wider and better legal aid services. But to congratulate the Government for the fact that it has paid some attention to the area is not to say that in every respect what it has done is correct. I am sure that the Attorney-General (Senator Murphy) would agree that in breaking new ground there will almost invariably be mistakes and areas which will need attention and rectification in the future.

It is my view that the Government is making a mistake in the emphasis which it is placing in its program on the Australian Legal Aid Office. I do not think there is any need to argue in this chamber the position of the private profession. Let me refer briefly to the speech of the Attorney-General, which has been referred to earlier in this debate, made on 13 December 1973. 1 think that his words summarised the position aptly. He said:

I have said that I see private legal practitioners, through their Law Societies or Legal Aid Committees, performing the major work in the legal aid field, that of litigation in the various courts. I hold firm views about the necessity for a strong and independent private legal profession that can stand between the Government and the citizens, not least in the fields of human rights, civil liberties and criminal matters generally.

I agree with the Attorney that it is essential for the citizens of Australia that there is a free and independent legal profession. But the fact of the matter is that this Budget indicates a turning away to some extent from the existing avenues of legal aid.

I do not accept the analysis of the situation that was made by Senator Everett with respect to the reduction in aid to existing legal aid services from $2m to $1.3m. As I understood Senator Everett's point, this will be offset by the additional moneys which will flow to the private profession through the Legal Aid Office. A sum of more than $3m is allowed for there. The members of the profession in Australia cannot be certain at this time just how and when those moneys will be made available. But, even more importantly, the existing legal aid systems which by and large around Australia work very well, are having an effective reduction in the amount of subsidy which is being provided direct to them by the Government.

The Attorney said that the Law Societies or Legal Aid Committees will be performing the major work in the legal aid field. I believe that the Government is going against those words if it reduces the . amount of money which is made available to those organisations. There are very great practical reasons why we ought to keep the emphasis on the private profession, quite apart from the need to retain a strong private legal profession for the reason which the Attorney outlined. For a start, there are almost always 2 sides in any legal matter. Notwithstanding that administrative arrangements may be made which ensure that the 2 sides are kept apart physically in a single legal aid office, I believe it is undesirable for the 2 sides in any dispute or even in non-litigious transactions to be represented by the same office. Also, in the interests of the economy, I suggest that the Government could achieve its social objectives much better by supplementing the efforts of the private profession rather than by bureaucratic solutions.

I refer the Attorney to the work of the Legal Advice Bureau in Perth with which I was involved before coming to this place. It provides the sort of preliminary legal advice which it is envisaged the Australian Legal Aid Office will provide. That advice is provided at the cost of $2 a client. I suggest to the Attorney that there is no possibility that he could rival that sort of economy in providing legal advice. I concede that in that case the professionals providing the service are not paid. I do not believe that an Australia wide operation could be financed on that type of voluntary basis. I am sure that any sort of financial analysis of that type of storefront operation will compare more than favourably with the Australian Legal Aid Office even when wages are taken into account.

I commend the Attorney's attention to the operation of that scheme. I suggest that it is a much cheaper way of obtaining his objective than by the financing of the Australian Legal Aid Office. Even more importantly, if we want to guarantee high quality legal aid for indigent persons or persons of limited means I do not believe that we should be providing it through a bureaucratic service. All people who are entitled to legal aid are entitled to a good standard of service. I believe that that standard will be achieved if the Government uses the private profession with its wider experience and if it does not segregate the needy cases from the rest of the community. So in the interests of the quality of service that is being provided I again urge the Attorney to look to fostering solutions through the private profession rather than having a separate professional bureaucratic office.

Notwithstanding the example of New South Wales which has been cited- I do not have the facts either to defend New South Wales or to agree with Senator Everett- I suggest that experience around Australia shows that the profession will co-operate with the Government. Let me refer to my own State and to the progress made in the last few years. We have been operating a legal assistance scheme which provides a full legal service on a free or subsidised basis. The only restriction on the expansion of that scheme is lack of finance. We have the Legal Advice Bureau which, for $2 a head, provides preliminary legal advice without means test. We have several offices operating under that scheme. We have a person providing part time service in the north-west. We have travelling solicitors in the more remote areas of the State. These people are financed by our legal assistance scheme. We now have duty solicitors in some of the lower courts. All these efforts are being provided by the private profession with some supplementary assistance from the Government. The only thing that prevents that wide range of services being expanded is a lack of money.

I commend to the Attorney-General the proposition that if he wants value for his legal aid money he should finance the expansion of those schemes rather than add an office to them. However, I agree with Senator Missen that in a country the size of Australia the private profession probably will not be able to do the whole job. As a stopgap there may be a need to establish an office of the type of the Australian Legal Aid Office. But I ask honourable senators to accept the point of view that that should be done only where the private profession cannot provide the service.







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