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Tuesday, 16 November 1976
Page: 2687

Mr ELLICOTT (Wentworth AttorneyGeneral) (Attorney-General) - It is very unfortunate that the Opposition has moved to debate this matter of public importance because it is quite evident that it is attempting to create a situation of confusion to try to stop the Government from establishing an adequate and proper legal aid service in this country. I immediately give the he to dominance by the Department of the Treasury which the honourable member for Kingsford-Smith (Mr Lionel Bowen) suggested because this year the figure for legal aid in the Budget has increased from $ 12.5m to $ 16.24m. An increase of something like 25 per cent. If we were about the job of disestablishing the Australian Legal Aid Office we would not be increasing the budgetary figure; nor would we have introduced what might, on the face of it, be an unpopular provision, namely, the payment of a $60 fee per divorce application to the Family Law Court. The purpose of that fee was to enable some additional funds to be provided for legal aid. That type of measure was adopted previously in New South Wales and it was an adequate way of financing legal aid. Quite clearly the Government is not about the task of dismantling the Australian Legal Aid Office.

This is a mischievous attempt on the part of the Opposition to create the impression that we are dismantling the Australian Legal Aid Office. The record of the Australian Labor Party in this field can be looked at in terms of figures. For the year ended 30 June 1975 the number of matters committed to the legal profession was 20 326. For the year ended 30 June 1976 the number of matters so committed was 45 706. In that last year, 5 months represented the time when a Labor Government was in power. In the period from 1 July 1976 to 30 September 1976 the total number of matters committed by way of legal aid was 12 766, which is a rate of 51 000-odd a year. In other words, on average, matters were committed to the private profession at the rate of 5 1 000 per year in the first 3 months of this financial year. The fact is, of course, as the honourable gentleman knows, the Legal Aid Office has been maintained at the level of commitment fixed by his Government in September of last year.

The referrals have continued and, as I have shown, they have continued at a rate which exceeds that of his Government. During the last 11 months of the Australian Labor Party Government the average number of personal interviews in the Australian Legal Aid Office was 1 1 693. In the first 6 months of this year the average number of monthly personal interviews in the Australian Legal Aid Office was 12 230. What is the honourable gentleman talking about when he speaks about the dismantling of the Australian Legal Aid Office? One can patently see that he is politicising this matter and trying to throw confusion into the staff and also to stop me in my endeavour on behalf of the Government to set up a proper system of legal aid in this country. Let us have a look at what has happened. From the beginning of my term as Attorney-General I have gone to the Legal Aid Office in every capital city in this country and sat down and talked with the staff. I have assured them of the fact that they will not be sold out, that adequate provision will be made to protect them under any system and I have given them the assurance that they should not be concerned.

In that period, of course, we have had constant attempts by the Labor Party Opposition, both federally and in the States, to try to throw these poor people into confusion. These are the people who were thrown onto bare floors in offices in capital cities and told- this was in 1974- to administer legal aid. In Sydney and Melbourne the staffs were thrown onto large floors, without partitions, and told to administer legal aid. There was inadequate support staff. This is the record of the then Government which now, in Opposition, is attacking this Government in relation to legal aid. I ask: What else did that Government do? It created a state of complete mistrust between the salaried service and the private profession. As I have said in the House before, we in our turn have created bridges between the salaried service and the private legal profession. In the Australian Capital Territory, for instance, I have established a legal aid committee on which is represented, on an informal basis, the Director of the Legal Aid Office and representatives of the Law Society of the Australian Capital Territory and the Bar Association of the Australian Capital Territory.

What else has happened there? Members of the private profession are now attending the legal aid office in Canberra on a voluntary basis to give advice to members of the public. That is an initiative that I took. The other thing which that committee is doing from time to time is looking at matters which go to the private profession by way of referral. In other words, I am building bridges which were not there between the salaried officers and the private profession. In fact, those bridges were deliberately destroyed. Of course, the speech of Mr Loxton in 1975 which the honourable gentleman quoted is a reflection of the attitude which was left in the minds of the private profession. Let us be clear about legal aid. The Government for 2 reasons cannot through salaried officers provide legal aid in this country. First of all, no government can provide a bottomless pit for legal aid. That is quite clear. The other reason is that the day that we have legal aid provided through a salaried service alone will be the day when people are deprived of the independent legal profession and the lawyer of their choice. I do not know whether that is the philosophy of honourable gentlemen opposite but to me that seems to be their philosophy.

My purpose in setting up a legal aid commission in every State would be to make sure that the legal profession had a substantial involvement, not for one moment so that it could be involved in a rip-off. As far as I am concerned, the legal profession has to make its contribution towards legal aid. A legal aid office should be the social service arm of all lawyers, not just of the private profession. It ought to be the place through which lawyers express their concern for the community. Because private lawyers must make a contribution I take the view that they should have a substantial involvement in the running of any legal aid commission. I am not asking any State Attorney-General to ensure that the State involvement be more than 50 per cent, 50 per cent or 40 per cent. I take the matter State by State or territory by territory. I shall attempt to arrive at that conclusion which is most likely to meet the needs and attitudes of people in a particular State. I have told this to the Law Council of Australia.

I have also told the Law Council of Australia that I am not in the business of destroying the Australian Legal Aid Office and that in any arrangement with States' officers, those officers have to be looked after. If the States engage in any commission in an attempt to destroy the salaried service, as far as I am concerned I shall be moving my Government to withdraw funds from those commissions because I am not in the business of destroying the salaried service. They have established themselves in cities and towns as an organisation which can provide legal aid on a proper basis. One of the misfortunes of the previous Government was that it did not set up a salaried service on a proper basis. I have already indicated the way in which it did it. For instance, it did not give that service enough support staff. It left them to do administrative work. A lot of these people are disillusioned. They are wondering what the Legal Aid Office is all about because they are not doing full time legal work.

I want to achieve a rationalisation of legal aid services through a State commission which is the only instrument we can have in which the effect will be that salaried officers will be doing legal work, not sitting down doing the work of a magnified clerk, working out whether the means test has been satisfied in a particular case. That is not work for lawyers. Yet that is the state in which I found the Legal Aid Office of this country. I have purposely left the Legal Aid Office in more or :ss the same form in which it was taken over so that the rationalisation of services could be undertaken in each State. I have referred before to the case in New South Wales, and it will be a disgrace if politicians cannot solve this problem. We have public defenders, public solicitors, the Law Society scheme and the Australian Legal Aid Office. How confusing that must be to members of the public. Imagine the premises that are involved, the overlap of staff that is involved. All I want to do is sit down with Mr Walker and work out a proper system. It has been said by the honourable gentleman opposite that I am refusing to negotiate with New South Wales. That is not correct; it is untrue. I have been trying to get to the table with Mr Walker ever since he came into office, as I was with his predecessor. I will be very happy to talk to him at any time. Mr Walker knows that, and I have had private discussions with him recently on the subject. When he is ready to talk I will be ready to talk, and we will get down to business. But one thing is going to be clear in those discussions; that is, that we are not going to destroy bridges but build them between the salaried office on the one hand and the legal profession on the other.

Reference has been made to the fact that I have thought of engaging somebody like Mr Loxton to advise me in relation to the Legal Aid Office in Sydney. The purpose of that engagement, if it takes place- and no final decision has yet been made- would be, as I have made quite clear, to enable me to know, firstly, what steps can be taken to build further bridges between those 2 groups in New South Wales; secondly, because Mr Loxton is the senior partner of one of the largest private firms in Sydney, to see whether any administrative practices which a large private firm uses can be used in a legal aid office. If anything is wrong with that approach, just tell me what it is. Honourable members may criticise it if they will, but that is the sole purpose of it, and it will be done, if it is done, in a way which will not disrupt the Legal Aid Office in Sydney. The purpose of the exercise is to increase efficiency.

So far as Western Australia is concerned, all that has happened is that a Bill has been introduced, and I am happy in principle with the terms of that Bill. I have an arrangement with the Western Australian Attorney-General that if any minor amendments are needed they will be made next year. But let us be clear about this. So far as the arrangement of detail is concernedthe taking over of the staff and the funding by the Commonwealth- that will be worked out between us in due course. Already quite detailed discussions have taken place, and I trust that finally an agreement will be reached which will put into practice the agreement we have already reached in principle. Let it be quite clear that that agreement in principle will adopt the salaried service of Western Australia, and assurances have been given to the salaried service there that it will be protected in any arrangement.

Mr Lionel Bowen - Will the ALAO remain?

Mr ELLICOTT - The honourable gentleman asks whether the Australian Legal Aid Office will remain. Of course it will not remain as the Aus- tralian Legal Aid Office, but that is because of his jingoism. He cannot stand by and see something which he created disappear in form. All that I am attempting to do, all that the Government is attempting to do, is to set up a legal aid system in which the legal aid officers who now perform salaried service work in the ALAO will in effect be part of the new commission. In due course they will administer the same form of legal aidfamily law legal aid, federal legal aid, legal aid to pensioners- which is presently being administered by them in Western Australia, but it will be done through a commission. There will be no confusion in Western Australia, and when South Australia agrees and when Tasmania and Victoria agree the same situation will apply. The ordinary citizen will be able to go into a legal aid office and say: 'I have a legal problem', and he will not be told: 'Sorry, this is a Federal legal aid office, you will have to go down to the State office', or 'This is a State matter, you will have to go for family law to the Federal legal aid office'. That day will be finished.

The other thing we have been doing is ensuring that bodies like the Fitzroy Legal Service and the Tenants Advisory Service in Victoria have been helped. We have also involved the Australian Council of Social Services.

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