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Funding access to justice for all: speech at the Bar Association of Queensland annual conference

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25 March 2017


Might I begin by acknowledging the Turrbal and Jagera people as the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. Can I acknowledge the presence of the Chief Justice of Queensland, the Hon Catherine Holmes; Attorney-General, Minister for Justice and Training and Skills, the Hon Yvette D’Ath MP; members of the judiciary; Christopher (Hughes), President of the Bar Association of Queensland; and members of the committee of the Bar Association; colleagues.

It is a great pleasure to once again speak at the Bar Association of Queensland’s annual conference. At the end of a long political life, Sir Earle Page, once briefly Prime Minister, reflected upon the fact that although he had spent most of his career in federal parliament, his training and early professional life had been as a surgeon, and so he called his memoirs Truant Surgeon. I must confess that whenever I speak to Bar conferences around Australia, I do feel something of the truant myself, and that I have finally come home. That is particularly so in Queensland, for as Christopher pointed out, I’ve been a member of this association for some 32 years.

This has been, by any measure, a wonderful year for the Queensland Bar. If only because this year we saw, for only the fourth time in our history, a member of our Bar elevated to the highest judicial office in the land. Those of us who were colleagues of Susan Kiefel’s at the Bar, and I know there are many of us here this morning, will be particularly delighted at her success, but not, it must be said, at all surprised by it. I should also note, and this should not be taken be a parochial remark, that with the appointment of Justice James Edelman to the High Court, for the first time, three of its seven members are citizens of Brisbane. Although not of this Bar, I know that Justice Edelman has become a friend of many in this room. One of those is Roger Derrington, whose appointment to the Federal Court I had the pleasure to announce yesterday. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Roger Derrington QC on his elevation and wish him well on his career on the Bench. I would like also to congratulate Christopher Hughes QC on his election as a Vice-President of Australian Bar Association.

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I’ve been asked this morning to say a few words about federal matters so I thought I’d take the opportunity to address a matter which I know has been of much interest to the Bar, and which was averted to briefly by the state Attorney and that is the question of the Federal Government’s contribution to legal assistance funding. We should never forget that most court proceedings in Australia are conducted in state and territory courts under state and territory law. Appropriately, therefore, it is the governments of the states and territories which are the principal funders of legal assistance in Australia. That is as it should be, even acknowledging, of course, that a very large component of the budgets of state and territory governments is money provided to them by the Commonwealth Government under various Commonwealth grants.

Nevertheless, federal governments of both political persuasions have always acknowledged that there is an important role for the Commonwealth to play in supporting the states in the provision of legal assistance through direct payments to Legal Aid Commissions, to Community Legal Centres, and to Indigenous legal assistance bodies. With that in mind, I note that in the recent past there have been a number of statements made about the size of the Commonwealth’s contribution to the legal assistance sector.

So let me take the opportunity with these remarks this morning to put some facts on the table.

First, to date, there have been no cuts to payments to Community Legal Centres by the Commonwealth Government. It has been claimed by some that the Government is withdrawing $6.8 million annually. That claim is misleading.

That money, to which the state Attorney also referred, was money provided for under a four year program, announced by the previous federal government in the 2013 budget, which was deliberately designed to terminate on 30 June 2017.When that program terminates that money will no longer be available. This is what is being called by some - the “Dreyfus funding cliff”.

In spite of those, and other claims, the reality of competing funding priorities and the necessity for budget repair across Government should not obscure the significant support that the Commonwealth provides and to which we are committed to continue to provide.

The facts speak for themselves.

From 1 July 2015 and across the forward estimates, the Federal Government is providing $1.6 billion for legal assistance services. The largest component of that is $1.2 billion for Legal Aid Commissions and Community Legal Centres through the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services, agreed to by all of the states and territories as a grand bargain to place on a sure footing and give certainty to the sector over the subsequent five years.

As well, with the aggregate funding envelope of $1.6 billion, the Commonwealth is providing an additional $45 million for frontline legal assistance services through the Women’s Safety Package and the Third Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.

In Queensland, the Commonwealth contributes nearly half of the total funding for legal assistance services for the year 2016-17. And over the past seven years in Queensland, the

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Commonwealth’s contribution to funding Community Legal Centres has almost doubled from $4.5 million in 2010-11 to $9.5 million this year. As well, the Commonwealth will provide $3.8 million in new funding over four years to community legal centres across Queensland.

However, as I have noted already, support for CLCs is not a matter for the Commonwealth alone. It requires the state and territory governments in each jurisdiction to pull their weight, both in terms of funding and, crucially, in terms of service delivery. That is why the National Partnership Agreement, to which I referred a moment ago, has been such a landmark achievement. It represents an agreed commitment from the Federal Government and the state and territory governments to combine our resources to provide the most effective support for legal assistance services.

As I have said, over the life of the Agreement, which commenced on 1 July 2015, the Commonwealth’s contribution will be more than $1.2 billion for Legal Aid Commissions and Community Legal Centres, leaving state and territory governments responsible for allocating that federal funding for Community Legal Centres, and encouraging legal assistance providers in each jurisdiction to improve service delivery. That funding maintains in real terms the value of the Commonwealth’s contribution to the states and territories over its five year lifespan. Critically, under the National Partnership Agreement, resources for legal assistance services are prioritised and directed to those most in need, with particular priority given to those experiencing, or at risk of, family violence.

The Turnbull Government has also provided an additional $45 million for frontline legal assistance services to support victims of family violence through the two programs I mentioned - the Women’s Safety Package and the Third Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. This is not a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul; this is new money for new services, including $20 million for domestic violence units and health-justice partnerships, of which $16.5 million is going directly to the Community Legal Centres themselves. And it should be noted that the $200 million package also includes $18.5 million for Legal Aid Commissions to deliver integrated duty lawyer and family violence support in family law courts; and $6.2 million for Family Relationship Centres. Under the Third Action Plan in Queensland, three Family Advocacy Support Services are being established. Legal Aid Queensland will receive over $2 million over three years to deliver the new services in Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns, and is also partnering with the Caxton Legal Centre to get more family law duty lawyers and social workers in the Brisbane Magistrates Court. This new funding will provide critical support for families to navigate between the federal and state systems.

So let me, in closing, reaffirm the Commonwealth’s continuing commitment to access to justice, to the provision and maintenance in real terms of the Commonwealth’s contribution to the sector through the funding of Legal Aid Commissions, Community Legal Centres and Indigenous legal services providers. I look forward to continuing to work with all state governments, including the Queensland Government, to deliver on the outcomes agreed upon by all governments through the National Partnership Agreement, and I wish you well in your deliberations this weekend. Thank you.