Access to Justice

Federation Chamber - ADJOURNMENT - Access to Justice

Federation Chamber on 5/12/2019

Watch Matt's speech here

Before entering into this place, I was a lawyer, President of the Law Society of Western Australia and the chair of Law Access Western Australia. These were privileged positions, where I worked to make justice more accessible for all Australians.

The court system in Australia is the backstop for justice. If the courts are not accessible then they are not effective as a way of enforcing legal rights. Access to justice encapsulates notions of equality, equity and fair access based on the principle that justice is not just a commodity for sale; rather, it is a right. If our justice system is inaccessible, it cannot provide justice.

Our court system is a Rolls-Royce system—it's of a very high standard—but generally, due to cost, it is unavailable to all but a few. Legal aid, community legal centres, legal assistance services and Aboriginal legal services are significantly underfunded and, as such, can only assist the most disadvantaged in our society, leaving justice for the many in the middle out of financial reach.

In particular, not only are those caught up in the criminal justice system often unable to get assistance; there is virtually no assistance on civil matters. It means that many engaged in bitter family disputes, serious commercial disputes or workplace disputes are disincentivised and are unable to afford to enforce their rights through the courts.

Yet a 2009 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers looking at the economic value of legal aid in the context of the family law system estimated a cost-benefit ratio of between 1.6 and 2.25 for every dollar invested in a legal aid system. When I was the vice president of the Law Society of Western Australia, I presented to a Productivity Commission hearing on our access to justice here in Australia. In 2014, five years ago Tuesday just gone, the Productivity Commission released their report Access to justice arrangements. They made a number of observations and recommendations, including:

A well-recognised entry point or gateway for legal assistance and referral would make it easier to navigate the legal system.

Most parties require professional legal assistance in more complex matters.

…   …   …

Disadvantaged Australians are more susceptible to, and less equipped to deal with, legal disputes. Governments have a role in assisting these individuals. Numerous studies show that efficient government funded legal assistance services generate net benefits to the community.

The nature and predictability of funding arrangements constrain the capacity of legal assistance providers to direct assistance to the areas of greatest benefit. This needs to change and, in some cases, funding should be redirected.

It is now five years since the Productivity Commission recommended that the federal government commit an additional $200 million in funding for civil legal assistance services. Five years has passed, and this government has done nothing about this recommendation. To be frank, at the last two elections, Labor hasn't committed to this either. Action has to be taken, because it is absolutely pitiful we have not yet done this as a country.

The commission estimated the $200 million was needed to:

better align the means test used by LACs with other measures of disadvantage

maintain existing frontline services that have a demonstrated benefit to the community

allow legal assistance providers to offer a greater number of services in areas of law that have not previously attracted funding.

It is now five years that individuals and families who need it most have been left out in the cold by this system, which has been set up to best service those who can most afford it rather than those who most need it. In fact, over the last five years, the situation has only gotten worse for legal aid and legal assistance service funding.

Last year the Law Council of Australia released the final report of the Justice Project, which outlined numerous recommendations as to how access to justice can be made accessible and affordable for all Australians. The Law Council report found that there were significant societal ramifications when people did not get access to the justice they needed and deserved. When people can't access justice that they need, there are personal, community, social and economic costs. These in turn have broader ramifications across the community in areas such as health, housing, social services, welfare, child protection, families, corrections and policing.

Increasing funding for legal aid, community legal centres, Aboriginal legal services and other legal assistance services is critical. It should have been done five years ago. Justice that can't be accessed, just like justice delayed, is justice denied. (Time expired)

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