Advocacy and frontline services vital to achieve access to justice

Public debate on the value of advocacy by community legal centres has increased markedly since our earlier post focusing on Federal Budget cuts and new restrictions to be introduced in July on law reform and policy advocacy using Federal funds.

Much of this debate has centred on the efficiency benefits of community legal centres’ law reform and policy advocacy work, which has been acknowledged by the Productivity Commission’s draft report on access to justice arrangements (see pp. 624–5), but challenged by Federal Attorney-General George Brandis, who is driving the new restrictions.

The Attorney-General maintains that, in an environment of limited resources available to deliver access to justice, funding for legal assistance through community legal centres should be confined to “frontline” services – individual cases of people walking through the doors of community legal centres.

While the vast majority of their resources are devoted to helping individual clients, community legal centres, among others, have argued that restricting law reform and policy advocacy removes an efficient means of achieving fairer laws, policies and practices. This can benefit many people who might otherwise experience the same problems and go on to present as individual cases, fuelling the crisis levels of demand already experienced by many of the 200 community legal centres around Australia.

Law reform and policy advocacy can relieve pressure on the community legal sector and the courts by preventing problems that arise from problematic laws. Improving the way the law works or is enforced can help to provide better justice for everyone.

A critical example is the need for advocacy in the vitally important area of free legal help to address family violence, as increasing numbers of women present at community legal centres seeking help to navigate a flawed and fragmented legal system that places them and their children at often fatal risk. That system, and the laws and policies that underpin it, should and must be challenged to make women and children safer.

While in some cases the work of community legal centres may question government legislation and policies, this is justified by the fact that their law reform and policy advocacy are based on the experience and insights gained by seeing the legal problems of thousands of people every year. With freedom to engage in law reform and policy advocacy, community legal centres’ work in resolving individual cases can also contribute to broader solutions that prevent legal problems being repeated.

This case has been made strongly by Liz Curran, senior lecturer in law at the Australian National University, in her recent article for The Saturday Paper, “Blind Justice“. She writes that “governments of all levels and political persuasions, and their agencies, can easily lose sight of the on-the-ground experiences of members of the public”.

The tension between Senator Brandis’ position, the case made by Curran, and the draft findings of the Productivity Commission has also been independently noted by Senators Wright, Singh and Peris in Senate Estimates (see pp. 64ff), and by Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus QC MP in a recent adjournment speech (PDF) in the House of Representatives.

It is a tension yet to be satisfactorily resolved, with Community Law Australia in strong agreement with advocates and the Productivity Commission’s draft finding that law reform and policy advocacy are a core activity of community legal centres.

The question of Federally funded advocacy has also recently received broader consideration by Dr Joyce Chia, Senior Research Associate at the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW. Dr Chia’s article, which makes a strong case for the broader importance of advocacy, followed post-budget comments by Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison MP, suggesting that “advocacy groups” should not be supported by Federal funding.

Interestingly, Minister Morrison’s views were contradicted in recent comments made by Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews MP, who said at the ACOSS national conference that the government should not “seduce community groups into becoming its mouthpiece”, that it should not see them as “simply an extension of itself”, and that “the institutions of civil society are important, and we support them”. Andrews consequently rejected the idea of gagging the welfare sector.

His remarks followed an ABC Radio National Breakfast report a day earlier, in which ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie expressed concerns about the risk of organisations being “restricted in speaking out on what needs to be done”.

The Attorney-General has sought to distinguish his position from a literal “gag” on law reform and policy advocacy by claiming to value these activities, and by asserting that, even under the new restrictions, they will continue to be carried out by community legal centres on a voluntary basis.

However, amid continuing chronic underfunding of the sector, the defunding of certain community legal centres, and deep funding cuts through the Budget that will inevitably impact the frontline services the Attorney-General aims to prioritise, the funding restrictions he is introducing clearly amount to an effective gagging of law reform and policy advocacy – to the clear detriment of efficiency in legal spending, and the public interest.

The Community Law Australia campaign rejects this position. Together with frontline services, law reform and policy advocacy are vital in tackling the access to justice crisis in Australia.

Further information:

Read the submissions in response to the Productivity Commission’s draft report