South Australians to benefit from new specialist consumer credit legal service

By Dr Greg Ogle, SACOSS

Dr Greg Ogle, Senior Policy and Research Analyst, SACOSS

Dr Greg Ogle, Senior Policy and Research Analyst, SACOSS

South Australia is the only state without any kind of consumer credit legal service, but that’s about to change.

Last year the South Australian government announced funding for a consumer credit legal service, which will provide free legal help to South Australians with credit legal problems who can’t afford a lawyer. We are now looking forward to announcement of the successful tender.

These specialist services can provide advice and legal help to individuals directly, but can also be a useful resource for financial counsellors and other community workers so they can better help their clients.

Free financial counselling services provide valuable services to people in financial difficulty. A specialist credit legal service can enhance the work of financial counsellors by giving them legal advice, taking on some of the difficult legal cases, and by working as a team where an individual may have a particular legal issue amidst a range of other financial problems.

The scoping study published by the South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS) last year demonstrated the level of legal need in this area. Being sued for a debt you don’t owe, stuck with an unfair credit contract, or being unaware of your rights when you’re in financial hardship can have devastating consequences – leading to worsening financial hardship, relationship problems, stress or even homelessness. Help for individuals is important, but a specialist legal service can also be effective in the prevention of problems. We have seen these specialist credit legal services in other states run important cases that confirm that particular industry conduct is illegal, or lead to regulators closing down dodgy lenders.

Some examples of the work done by specialist credit legal services around the country include:

  • Representing low income people who have been exploited by high cost “payday” lenders,
  • Having disadvantaged guarantors released from debt, thereby saving their home,
  • Providing representation in contested ‘financial hardship’ matters,
  • Having debts waived, or reduced, in relation to expensive high pressure ‘in-home’ sales.

I look forward to the establishment of this specialist service so that South Australians with credit and debt issues, who can’t afford a lawyer, can get the help they need.

Dr Greg Ogle is a Senior Policy & Research Analyst at the South Australian Council of Social Service

Tough Budget must not target people unable to afford legal help

With Treasurer Joe Hockey warning of a ‘tough’ Federal Budget, national access to justice campaign Community Law Australia has highlighted the risk of further cuts to free legal assistance, when growing unmet legal need instead demands a doubling of current funding to community legal centres.

“We hear the Federal Government’s view that everyone needs to share the burden of a ‘tough’ Budget, but we say that people who can’t afford legal help for common and often serious legal problems should not be called on to bear it,” said Carolyn Bond AO, national spokesperson for Community Law Australia, today.

Ms Bond said that free legal assistance services, including frontline services targeting family violence, were already reeling from significant cuts following the Mid-Year Economic and Financial Outlook (MYEFO) last December.

“MYEFO saw announced cuts of more than $43 million to Aboriginal, family violence, environmental and broader legal assistance services. The Government claims these were primarily directed at policy and law reform, but the reality is that frontline services for Australians in need will be affected.

“These cuts need to be reversed, and free legal assistance needs to be funded across the board on a sustainable basis or we’ll risk an even worse access to justice crisis in Australia,” Ms Bond said.

Research by the Australia Institute found that half-a-million people miss out on legal help each year, while 63 per cent of centres responding to a 2012–13 ACOSS survey said they were unable to meet demand. Of the people community legal centres are able to help, 80 per cent earn less than $26,000 per year.

“We’re talking about issues like family violence, housing problems, employment and credit and debt issues. An elderly person with a dispute about faulty roofing on her home, the family of a man with a terminal illness facing loss of their home, a woman seeking support to leave a violent partner – these are the sorts of problems that will increasingly go unaddressed unless there’s more funding in the system,” Ms Bond said.

She said the problems encountered by community legal centres as individual cases could sometimes be better addressed at a systemic level to change policies and laws for the benefit of thousands of people, so continued funding for policy and law reform work was also vital.

“Community legal centres see thousands of people and gain unique insights into legal problems that would otherwise be unavailable to government. To deny the value of this work for policy and law reform simply because it may question government policy is counter-productive. Effectively, it’s asking an efficient community legal sector not to be smart in the way it works. It’s asking us to be inefficient,” Ms Bond said.

She said the lead-up to the Federal Budget would see the consideration of a recently completed national review of legal assistance services commissioned by the former Government, and also the release of a Productivity Commission report on legal assistance services.

“Ultimately, budgets are a matter of priorities. Agencies like ACOSS have already suggested where alternative cuts could be made if a ‘tough’ Budget is necessary. We note, for example, that the Federal Government spent $714 million on its own legal services in 2012–13 compared with $32 million for community legal centres over the same period.

“The Government can choose how the burden of a ‘tough’ Budget is shared. It shouldn’t choose to cut services that prevent legal problems that will otherwise escalate to impact disadvantaged individuals and the community, causing further human costs and expense to government,” Ms Bond concluded.

Today, Community Law Australia is holding a social media Day of Action with community legal centres around Australia telling their stories on Facebook, and using the #unlockthelaw hashtag on Twitter.

Download this media release (PDF)

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Carolyn Bond on 0412 032 987 or Darren Lewin-Hill on 0488 773 535.

Join our Day of Action for community legal centres this Thursday

Iris Furtado (SA) with National Spokesperson Carolyn Bond and Nicky Snare (TAS) taking the Community Law Australia message to the Australian Parliament

Iris Furtado (SA) with National Spokesperson Carolyn Bond and Nicky Snare (TAS) taking the community legal centre message to the Australian Parliament

This Thursday 3 April we’re holding a Community Law Australia Day of Action, and we want you to join in to help us show just what a difference community legal centres make in the lives of people with legal problems who can’t pay for a lawyer but can’t get legal aid.

Unmet legal need is growing rapidly in Australia, yet community legal centres are under increasing funding pressure to do more with less.

Our Day of Action is an opportunity to tell your story, to say “no” to legal assistance cuts, and “yes” to better funded and more accessible community legal centres for all Australians.

What you can do to help:

  • Follow @CommunityLawAus on Twitter, tweet about the work you’re doing and the difference you’re making. Be sure to include the hashtag #unlockthelaw in your tweet (that helps us see what you’re tweeting). If you have room, you could also include #auspol or #auslaw.

    Here are two example tweets:

    A dying woman had her significant debts waived through free help from the Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic #unlockthelaw

    A body corporate was forced to repair an elderly woman’s leaking roof through free legal help from SunCoast Community Legal Service #unlockthelaw

  • If you like, add a picture of your staff or the centre where you work.
  • If you agree with our tweets, retweet them to your followers to help us spread the word. We’ll be retweeting yours.
  • “Like”, comment on, or send us stories to post on the Community Law Australia Facebook page.
  • Email us now at info[at]communitylawaustralia.org.au or share your story via our website to tell us about your work. Tell us if you’re happy for us to write about it on our blog, Facebook or tweet it. You might even be prepared to help us do some media.

If enough of us join in, our Day of Action will be a day of stories about the work of community legal centres, and a powerful case for why they need more support.

Community Law Australia Day of Action, Thursday 3 April 2014. Join us!