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Members of the legal profession, including judges and barristers, are to take part in industrial action on Wednesday to protest against the Government's proposed cuts to legal aid funding

PETER THOMPSON: Australia's lawyers who you'd have to say aren't renowned as the most industrially active profession, will take to the streets on Wednesday in a move to help save the nation's ailing legal aid system.

For the first time, legal aid officers around the country are uniting to protest against the Federal Government's proposed $120 million cut to legal aid. In fact, New South Wales legal aid lawyers are so angry that they are actually going on strike on this national day of action.

But it's not just the lawyers employed through legal aid offices that are getting set to rally. Community legal centres, private lawyers, barristers, even a few prominent judges are expected to join the rallies and some of Australia's best-known legal names will take part.

Not the least of them is Melbourne-based QC, Robert Richter. The immediate past president of the Victorian Council of Civil Liberties joins us now from his home in Melbourne. Robert Richter, good morning to you.

ROBERT RICHTER: Good morning.

PETER THOMPSON: And also in our Melbourne studio is a former legal aid lawyer, now Federal Industrial Officer with the CPSU, John McLachlan. John McLachlan, good morning to you.

JOHN McLACHLAN: Good morning, Peter.

PETER THOMPSON: Robert Richter, this national day of action, I mean, it is an extraordinary event for lawyers to unite in this way.

ROBERT RICHTER: Quite unprecedented. In fact, I recall about 10 years ago, when I was President of the Criminal Bar Association in Victoria, I proposed some action and it was roundly rejected by the membership at that stage.

PETER THOMPSON: And on what issue was that?

ROBERT RICHTER: That was on the issue of funding, which was then the equivalent of legal aid funding.

PETER THOMPSON: What will be the message from Wednesday's rallies around the country?

ROBERT RICHTER: I think the message for people around the country is going to be that we have been told, or rather the Australian public has been told a pack of lies about the legal aid system. And the fact is that Australia has fallen behind in its international obligations, that Australia is in fact spending less money on legal aid per head of population than any other equivalent country in the world, or comparable country, and that we do not have a system of access to justice, as we have been promised and are repeatedly being promised.

PETER THOMPSON: So the pack of lies involves the fact that we haven't been told the truth about how much money is spent ....

ROBERT RICHTER: It's not just about how much money we are expending. We are being deluded into believing that this is a civilised country where people have proper access to justice. And they do not.

PETER THOMPSON: John McLachlan, as we've been discussing really, this is the first time lawyers have taken action of this sort. I mean, legal aid lawyers in New South Wales are going one step further, actually going on strike. Can you remember anything of this sort before?

JOHN McLACHLAN: No, although they're not quite going on strike. What they're doing is they're not attending court on Wednesday; they'll be in their offices working.

PETER THOMPSON: What will that actually do? What impact will that have?

JOHN McLACHLAN: In New South Wales a very significant effect. It'll certainly almost stop the local courts and it will have a very significant effect certainly in the criminal jurisdiction of the District Court and the Supreme Court.

PETER THOMPSON: How many lawyers are we talking about?

JOHN McLACHLAN: Well, there are more than 1,000 people employed in legal aid bodies around Australia - not all of them are lawyers, probably about 25 per cent of them are lawyers.

PETER THOMPSON: Robert Richter, how much notice do you think Canberra will take of this?

ROBERT RICHTER: Well, given that, as you've said, the profession is very conservative and given that this has been an unprecedented step, Canberra ought to sit up and take notice. Unfortunately, I'm not too sure that they will, because the economic rationalists and bean counters are at the helm.

PETER THOMPSON: I'm sure also when you think about it, I mean, the legal aid profession and the wider legal profession, I mean, rarely would they unite in this way in any circumstances, but is the campaign, if you like, against the cuts in legal aid coherent enough? I mean, the fact that there's a strike going on - not quite a strike as John points out, but action taking place in only one State - does that worry you, Robert?

ROBERT RICHTER: I don't know what's going to happen as a result of Wednesday's meeting in fact. The fact is that action is being taken and it is not just the legal fraternity as it were. There are a number of judges who support the protest and who've spoken out quite strongly about what's happening.

PETER THOMPSON: Who are these judges?

ROBERT RICHTER: Well, there are a number of judges who, for example Justice Mushin from the Family Court spoke out very volubly a few days ago on the sort of catastrophic situation the judges are being placed with in the Family Court, having to deal with unrepresented litigants ... experienced judges in crime who have spoken out and who do speak out.

PETER THOMPSON: Are we going to hear from more of them this week, do you believe?

ROBERT RICHTER: I sincerely hope so.

PETER THOMPSON: John McLachlan, what about the campaign? Is it coherent enough yet?

JOHN McLACHLAN: Well, this is the first step, and members in other States really decided that, because of their responsibilities to their clients, they didn't want to take strike action or withdraw services because really this all started with members of the union in different States being very concerned about the level of services, or rather the lack of services that people in the community who need it were getting.

And what they're saying is if these cuts go ahead, the already pretty limited legal aid service will fall below what even is basic necessity.

PETER THOMPSON: Robert Richter, one of your QC colleagues, Daryl Williams, is the Attorney-General. Are you surprised he's actually at the head of this movement to cut back legal aid?

ROBERT RICHTER: I'm not surprised. He's been made the fall guy. I think if you have watched him on television being interviewed about the legal aid cuts, he has had a uniquely embarrassed appearance about it all. He has been put up there as a politician to justify the unjustifiable, and he's got no choice because he is a politician. The fact that he's a QC is secondary when it comes to talking about monetary expenditure.

PETER THOMPSON: Just briefly and finally, is it a matter of simply restoring the 120 million?

ROBERT RICHTER: No, it's not. The fact is that in 1966 the Law Council of Australia in fact called for an increase, for an injection of $60 million to legal aid. Instead what we got was a cut of 23-odd per cent in expenditure. So the Law Council of Australia considered that there was a need for increasing expenditure. The judges have considered that, the profession has considered that and it's not out of self-interest because only 4 per cent of lawyers' income in Australia comes from legal aid. So it's not self-interest. Everyone considers the system needs it, and yet instead of getting the increase we've got a massive cut.

PETER THOMPSON: Thank you very much. Robert Richter, Melbourne QC and also John McLachlan, Federal Industrial Officer with the CPSU, himself a one-time legal aid lawyer.