Community Law Australia today welcomed Attorney-General Nicola Roxon’s announced Federal Court system changes that reintroduce fee waivers and exemptions for disadvantaged litigants, but expressed concern about other fee changes.
Community Law Australia Spokesperson Hugh de Kretser said that the fee waiver for disadvantaged people trying to navigate the court system was commendable, but that further barriers to legal access still needed to be addressed.
“The experience of community legal centres across Australia is that court fees are a real barrier for those on low incomes,” said Mr de Kretser.
“Removing this barrier for disadvantaged litigants is a common sense move that will promote access to justice and even the playing field.
“However we are concerned about the failure to extend the fee waivers to divorce applications, meaning that people on low incomes will now have to pay a minimum of $265 to get a divorce.
“Community legal centres help women escaping abusive or violent relationships. Getting a divorce is an important step in the recovery process, but for women on low incomes this cost may be prohibitive.
“We’re also concerned about the fee increases for people who don’t meet the fee waiver criteria.
Community Law Australia offered qualified support for the moves to increase fees for large corporations and Commonwealth Government.
“Structuring fees to better reflect the ability of different court users to pay is a sensible step.
“However we would like to see the income raised invested back into legal services for people who can’t afford a lawyer.
“Ordinary Australians are being excluded from the courts because they can’t afford legal services and court fees.
“A court system which only the rich and powerful can access is a bit like having a public hospital where only the rich can get treatment.
“If we can redirect spending to early advice and assistance for Australians, this will increase access to the legal system, but also save money in the long run by preventing disputes from escalating or arising in the first place.
The changes, which will start on 1 January 2013, will include:
- Corporations fee to increase by 40%
- Court fees adjusted to reflect capacity of litigants to pay
- Government agencies to start paying the corporations rate as a reflection of the Commonwealth’s frequent court use
- Fee waivers for low income litigants
- Fee waiver does not apply to divorce matter
- Increase to fees for low income divorce applicants from $60 to $265
- Increase to fees for other divorce applicants (not low income) from $577 to $800
“Changes to court fees are only a small part of the picture. We need greater investment in quality legal services for Australians who can’t afford a lawyer,” said Mr de Kretser.