28/02/2017 - 15:15

$8m needed for legal aid

28/02/2017 - 15:15

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Western Australia’s peak association for lawyers has called on the state’s political parties to commit at least an additional $8 million to legal assistance services ahead of the March 11 election.

Alain Musikanth says around 10,000 Australians represent themselves in court each year because they can’t afford a lawyer. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Western Australia’s peak association for lawyers has called on the state’s political parties to commit at least an additional $8 million to legal assistance services ahead of the March 11 election.

The Law Society of Western Australia says a funding boost of that magnitude is needed to adequately sustain a sector currently facing increasing demand pressures, following the federal government’s decision to cut almost $30 million from Community Legal Centres, starting July 2017.

At the same time as the cuts were flagged, the Productivity Commission’s ‘Access to Justice Inquiry’ report estimated that an additional $200 million a year in funding from both federal and state governments was needed to maintain and sustain the legal assistance services sector. 

The recommended proportion of that for the WA government was an additional $8 million.

WA was also revealed as have the lowest per-capita funding for legal aid in the nation.

Last financial year, Community Legal Centres turned away 160,000 requests for legal assistance, with current funding only able to cover 8 per cent of the community.

And in the first three weeks of January 2017, the WA Mental Health Law Centre had to turn away 25 requests for legal assistance.

Law Society WA president Alain Musikanth said about 10,000 Australians had to represent themselves in court each year because they couldn’t afford a lawyer.

“The system is in crisis and there will be no improvement without adequate funding for legal assistance,” Mr Musikanth told Business News.

“Due to funding cuts, Legal Aid WA can no longer assist people by providing representation in the Magistrates Court; members of our community are desperate and have nowhere else to turn.”

Among those in need are the most vulnerable members of the community, Mr Musikanth said, such as women who were escaping domestic violence and were forced to face their abusive former partners in court without a lawyer to assist them.

It also included many middle-class Australians who were unable to pay for legal representation.

Federal funding directed towards legal aid has decreased over the past 20 years. In 1997, the per capita spent on legal aid Australia wide was $11.22; that figure currently sits at less than $8 per capita, according to Legal Aid Matters, a campaign being led by the Law Council of Australia.

The funding shortfall has placed increased pressure on state governments to pick up the slack; the Commonwealth made up 55 per cent of the commitment in 1997, while today it only contributes 35 per cent of funds.

In 2015-16, Legal Aid Western Australia received $29.9 million in Commonwealth grants and contributions, with total income from the state government totalling $42.4 million.

Mental Health Law Centre chair Matthew Howard, who is also the WA Bar Association president, said there was a lot of uncertainty around what would happen with the next state budget. 

“Historically, the state has stepped in to try and meet the shortfall from the commonwealth, but one of the difficulties is the state budget is under pressure no matter who gets elected on March 11,” Mr Howard told Business News.

“And we haven’t heard from anyone on either side that the community legal sector is a priority – it’s not often seen in the community or by politicians as a priority or a question of fairness.

“We’ve got unmet demand at present funding levels and we have a lot of uncertainty as to what will be the funding for the sector in the next financial year.”

Mr Howard said centres currently had many of their solicitors on contract until the end of June due to the uncertainty around future funding, which further affected the sector due to the lack of job security associated with community legal centre employment.

“You’ve got people sitting there wondering whether they have a job or not. So that doesn’t help the provision of services,” he said.

“It’s not to make this about those solicitors employed, but the issue is there’s unmet demand now and our concern is that’s going to become significantly worse.”

Even though the Mental Health Law Centre did not receive any federal funding, Mr Howard said cuts to the sector from July this year would increase the burden on the WA government. Therefore, he said, the state funding pool may be spread more thinly across all providers, effectively reducing the share of all providers facing unmet demand.

“Legal matters are not often simple and people who are vulnerable can’t really look after themselves in that crisis – it’s a specialised area,” he said.

“Representation for people who can’t afford it goes to the very core of what society we have.

“We say we have a ‘fair system’ but a huge chunk of society can’t afford advice or representation; as a matter of principle to me it just seems wrong that we would allow that to happen.” 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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