Below is an open letter from Pro Bono Practices in Australian Law firms in support of an adequately funded legal assistance sector.
20 June 2016
Pro Bono and the Legal Assistance Sector
In 2015, leaders of pro bono practices at Australian law firms wrote to the Attorneys General in all Australian governments, to advocate that the renewal of the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services be guided by the relevant findings made by the Productivity Commission in its Report into Access to Justice Arrangements.
Our concerns have been echoed in the Law Council of Australia’s #LegalAidMatters campaign and Community Law Australia’s #FundEqualJustice campaign.
The Productivity Commission observed that not providing legal assistance for unresolved civil problems for low-income and disadvantaged people is a false economy, as the costs of unresolved problems are shifted to other areas of government spending such as health care, housing and child protection. Numerous Australian and overseas studies demonstrate the net public benefits which come from legal assistance expenditure to resolve civil legal problems for low-income and disadvantaged people.
Adopt the Productivity Commission’s recommendations for civil legal assistance
We continue to urge the Commonwealth, States and Territories to commit to a realistic plan which will adopt the recommendations of the Productivity Commission in respect of addressing unmet legal need for low-income and disadvantaged Australians, and which will move towards the additional $200m of annual Legal Assistance Sector civil funding recommended by the Productivity Commission, including an additional annual $120m from the Commonwealth.
Reverse the cuts
We are concerned about the impact of the present arrangements to cease the restoration of Commonwealth funding for Legal Assistance Sector providers at 30 June 2017. Scale efficiencies and funding uncertainties are already a challenge for the community legal sector. Government-funded civil law assistance for disadvantaged Australians is delivered in large part through 200 small and under-resourced independent CLCs which must rely heavily on volunteer lawyers while facing complex multiple and short-term funding arrangements. The present arrangements further reduce the capacity of CLCs to assist low-income and disadvantaged clients.
Pro bono work cannot fill the gaps
Pro bono legal assistance cannot be a substitute for government-funded Legal Assistance Services in Australia. This is much more than a statement of fundamental principle. Not just philosophically, but also as a matter of practical reality, pro bono assistance by private lawyers could not possibly fill the gap which exists. Australia has a pro bono culture stronger than almost every other country, and yet pro bono work at large firms might amount to less than 3% of the capacity of Legal Assistance Services to assist low-income and disadvantaged clients.
We have little or no pro bono capacity to assist with family law, criminal law, immigration or with clients in regional Australia. We cannot come close to meeting the level of unmet legal need which will be created by a reduction of CLC capacity.
There is no effective pro bono assistance without an effective Legal Assistance Sector
We cannot provide effective pro bono assistance without an effective Legal Assistance Sector. Virtually none of our pro bono work for low-income and disadvantaged people could be performed without partnerships and relationships with Legal Assistance Services, including with CLCs.
The individual clients we assist on a pro bono basis usually are referred to us by a Legal Assistance Service or attend one of the outreach clinics we conduct with a Legal Assistance Service. The delivery of many pro bono services by the private legal profession requires a partnership or collaboration with effectively-functioning Legal Assistance Services.
Nicky Friedman – Director of Community Engagement, Allens
Sarah Morton-Ramwell – Partner, Global Head Pro Bono and Corporate Responsibility, Ashurst
Kate Gillingham – Pro Bono Counsel, Baker & McKenzie
David Hillard – Partner, Pro Bono National Practice Group Leader, Clayton Utz
Catriona Martin – Pro Bono Director – Asia Pacific, DLA Piper Australia
Michelle Hannon – Pro Bono Partner, Gilbert+Tobin
Jillian Mitford-Burgess – Pro Bono Special Counsel, Henry Davis York
Brooke Massender – Head of Pro Bono & Citizenship Australia & Asia, Herbert Smith Freehills
Joanna Renkin – Pro Bono Community Support Partner, Lander & Rogers
Karen Keogh – National Pro Bono Leader, Tress Cox Lawyers