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Opening of the Legal Aid Commission of the A.C.T.



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7 -

Other Activities

Member of the Council of the Law Society of South

Australia and acted on its Poor Persons Legal

Assistance Committee and its Law Reform Committee.

Councillor for the Town of Walkerville.

Member of the Council of St Marks College University of

Adelaide.

Represented University and the State in Rugby Union

football. -

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OPENING OF THE LEGAL AID CCMMISSION

OF THE AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY

Address by the Attorney-General

Senator Peter Durack, Q.C·

I am pleased to be here today at the official

opening of the Legal Aid Commission of the Australian

Capital Territory.

The establishment of this Commission ha,s in

itself been a milestone in the administration of legal

aid in Australia. The Legal Aid Ordinance which set up

this Commission is the model being used in the estab­

lishment of Legal Aid Commissions in the other States

as part of the Commonwealth Government's comprehensive

plan for legal aid. For this reason I am very pleased

to see my colleague, Bob Ellicott here who, when

Attorney-General was the architect of the legislation

proposed for the States and Territories.

The setting up of this Commission reaffirms

the commitment the Commonwealth Government has made in

the provision of legal aid. The Government's view is

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that legal aid is best delivered by a Commission which

is independent of the Government. A Commission is not

under the same constraints as part of a Government

Department. It has on it representatives of a wide body

of people concerned with the provision of legal

assistance.

A quick glance at the composition of this

Commission will show that it has been able to assemble

a wide range of expertise. There are representatives

from the private legal profession, from the Legislative

Assembly, from people engaged in social work and from

Government. The chairman, Mr Justice Else-Mitchell is

very experienced in all aspects of the law and now has

the difficult task of presiding over the Commonwealth

Grants Commission. His experience in having to make

Solomon-like decisions on how to distribute available

funds to the States will no doubt be a great asset to

this Commission.

There is now almost a general acceptance in

Australia of the scheme of establishing Legal Aid

Commissions. Three States - Western Australia, South

Australia and Queensland have passed legislation to

establish State Commissions to co-operate with the

Commonwealth Legal Aid Commission. The Commission is

already operating in Western Australia, the South

Australian Commission has been constituted and the

Queensland Commission will begin operations later this

year. Draft legislation has been prepared for the

Northern Territory and negotiations are proceeding with

Victoria. The Committee appointed by Tasmania to

enquire into the future of legal aid service is about

to present its report.

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The operation of these Commissions will

' provide the most efficient delivery of legal aid. It

* will avoid some of the problems where there were

several Government agencies and schemes by the private

legal profession, all in the business of providing

legal aid. In the States, where the division of matters

of State law and Federal law did cause problems, the

Legal Aid Commissions will be able to provide an across

the board service.

I would here like to mention the members of

the Legal Aid Committee of the Australian Capital

Territory and thank them for the dedication with which

they performed their functions. The scheme, established

by the 1972 Ordinance, was the initial attempt by the

then Commonwealth Government to provide legal aid in

the Territory on a proper basis. It functioned in close

- > co-operation with the Law Society of the Australian

Capital Territory and achieved its success because of

the active and willing participation of the members of

‘ the Law Society. The adoption of the new comprehensive

scheme, which avoids duplication of legal aid services,

necessarily required the repeal of the Legal Aid

ordinance 1972.

I would like also to express my appreciation

of the work of the staff of the Australian Legal Aid

Office in this Territory since the Office began in

November 1974. Their work has shown the significant

contribution to be made to the provision of legal aid

by salaried lawyers.

The Ordinance establishing the Commission

embodies the basic Government policy that the

► Commission will provide legal aid through both private

legal practitioners and salaried lawyers of the

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Commission. It will be for the Commission to strike a .

proper balance to ensure that legal aid is provided in

the most economic, effective and efficient manner. I

mention that recently the Family Law Council

recommended that salaried lawyers should provide a duty r

lawyer service in the Family Court. I am informed that

the Commission has agreed to provide this service.

Although the Commonwealth Government has a

firm commitment for legal aid to those in need, I have

stressed before that Government funds for legal aid

will, of necessity, always be limited but at the moment

even more so. I shall be looking to the Commonwealth

Commission to research and recommend to the

Attorney-General new and improved means of providing

legal assistance and to evaluate methods being

developed in overseas countries, for example, group

schemes, pre-paid insurance, legal clinics and

neighbourhood centres. It is essential that more

efficient and economic methods, which do not merely

depend on increased Government funding, be developed

for providing legal aid to persons who need to go to

law and cannot afford to do so.

- I would like to emphasise the importance of

the contribution of the private legal profession to the

new scheme.

The provision of legal aid in this Territory

has always relied heavily on the goodwill and

dedication of members of the private profession. It is

not so long ago - in fact in the first report of the *

Legal Aid Committee dealing with its first months of '

operation in 1972 - that the Committee was able to say,

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"the profession has undertaken to accept

remuneration, paid directly by the

Committee, on a reduced fee basis, (which is

70 percent of a normal solicitor and client

rate in civil matters and approximately 66

2/3 per cent of a moderate solicitor and

client fee in criminal matters)".

The Committee was also able to report,

"a good response from local practitioners in

. taking work under the scheme."

I understand that the percentage of normal

fees was later increased and that prior to the

commencement of the Commission it was 90 per cent,

which was the same percentage adopted by the Australian

Legal Aid Office.

One of the more difficult problems which has

troubled legal aid schemes throughout Australia is the

steady rise in professional costs charged by private

legal practitioners, and in disbursements, including

counsel's fees.

In these days when Government funds are

highly limited, I cannot stress often enough that legal

aid funds provided by the Government will not be the

complete answer to the people who are obliged to go to

law and cannot afford to do so.

It must be understood the Government funding

has to be limited. At this stage we would like to be

able to help more people, but we simply do not have the

funds to do so.

The voluntary contribution of the private

legal profession will be one of the essential

ingredients if the Commission here is to achieve its

aims. Not only should the profession consider the

provision of voluntary services, but it should

seriously consider significant reductions in normal

fees and the acceptance of lump sum fees for legal aid

work.

Indeed the legislation provides for the

Commission to negotiate with the profession reduced

fees. and lump sum fees which would reduce adminis­

trative costs.

I greatly commend to the profession the

concept of its members being involved as much as

possible, on a voluntary basis, in the work of the

Legal Aid Commission. I was happy to learn that the

Legal Advice Bureau which the Law Society has operated

for the public benefit through the voluntary services

of private practitioners and Government lawyers is to

be continued. '

I am pleased to be with you here this

afternoon. I wish the Commission well in its difficult

task. I assure you that I am deeply aware of many of

the problems you will have to face and I shall do

whatever I can to assist you. I have great pleasure in

declaring these premises open.

Canberra

13 July 1978

33/78

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