With the election in full swing and neither party responding to the legal aid funding crisis, lawyers from across Australia will hold rallies and events in major cities during Law Week (16-20 May).
The rallies and events will launch a major national campaign on legal aid funding, with widespread support from the community sector, which experiences the impact of the legal aid crisis first-hand.
Law Council of Australia President, Stuart Clark AM, said most Australians would be shocked at Commonwealth legal aid funding neglect, which has seen a massive rise in unmet legal need.
“Successive federal governments have ripped hundreds of millions of dollars from legal aid, effectively crippling this vital justice safety net,” Mr Clark said.
“As a result, ordinary Australians are being forced to represent themselves in court on a daily basis, or worse ignore their legal problems, with potentially devastating consequences.
“Most people assume that if they require legal help and cannot afford it, legal aid is there to help. Unfortunately they are wrong – the funding crisis is now so bad that even many Australians who are living beneath the poverty line are not eligible. For most people it’s simply unavailable.
“We must decide if justice should be the right of all Australians. Due to enormous cuts in legal aid funding, it is now reserved for those with the means to afford a lawyer. For the rest, it is a lottery.
“This is the question at the heart of the Law Council’s legal aid funding campaign.”
Mr Clark pointed out that the choice to adequately fund legal aid should have been easy for governments concerned about budget repair.
“The Productivity Commission recommended an immediate $200 million injection into legal aid, which it has found will provide a net economic benefit over the long term,” Mr Clark said.
“Increasing numbers of unrepresented people have filled the court system, creating enormous inefficiencies. Meanwhile, the downstream impact of unmet legal need on health, unemployment and community services has inestimable social and economic costs, which could be avoided.
“The Productivity Commission and other independent economic analysts have found that investing in legal aid would deliver significant net savings to taxpayers.”
Mr Clark welcomed the Government commitment to allocate money to support legal aid as part of its new package to reduce violence against women and their children; and the Opposition’s promise to reverse Community Legal Centre cuts from 2014 Budget. But said much more is needed.
“While supported, these commitments don’t address the systemic funding problem,” Mr Clark said.
“Given decades of deep cuts legal aid, much more funding is needed to end this injustice.
“Whoever wins this election must commit to properly fund legal aid and end this needless crisis once and for all,” Mr Clark said.
Mr Clark urged all Australians who believe in the principal of access to justice to turn out and show their support at the May rallies.
Patrick Pantano: Public Affairs Anil Lambert: Media