In the 1980s, I worked with others to establish a self-funded legal service, to provide a mix of paid work, and free work to the disadvantaged.
Since then I have focused on helping the disadvantaged within a number of structures, including private practice, legal aid (as an employee and as a private practitioner undertaking legally aided matters) and community legal centres.
The concept of a self-funded model is an attractive one, and Salvos Legal is a great example where free legal help is provided for people who can’t afford a lawyer, funded by the income from its “for profit” arm which services organisations and individuals who can pay.
However, I would caution against any argument that self-funded services are the solution to providing legal help to the many people who cannot afford the fees, or that they can replace the need for government funded services.
While self-funded services can work, a major challenge is attracting enough paying clients to subsidise the free services.
Rather, we need a mix of legal assistance models that can effectively address the need in the community, underpinned by proper government funding. Community legal centres are in part government funded but also facilitate contributions from thousands of volunteer lawyers as well as pro-bono contributions from law firms.
Using a commonly stated figure of $250 per hour to value legal work, if we apply this to just one Melbourne CLC where I work, the output of paid legal staff is $3.8 million and volunteer lawyers and pro bono contributions account for an extra $525,000 each year.
This CLC gets around $750,000 in government funding, plus $250,000 from other sources, and yet on these figures deliver four times that amount in legal services alone – not to mention the legal education and law reform services that most CLCS provide on top of that.
Repeated inquiries have pointed to the inadequate government funding of free legal services and conservative estimates suggest that half a million Australians miss out on legal help primarily because of the cost.
I welcome the development of innovative services, but the need for better government funding of core legal aid and community legal services continues.
By Denis Nelthorpe
Manager Footscray and Wyndham CLCs