National survey confirms legal help beyond the reach of many

The National Legal Needs Survey, released in Canberra today by the NSW Law and Justice Foundation and National Legal Aid, confirms the need for decisive government action to address the crisis in access to justice in Australia, said Community Law Australia.

Community Law Australia Spokesperson Hugh de Kretser said that the survey, which involved over 20,000 telephone interviews of households across the country, showed that legal problems are widespread, but that legal advice is not commonly sought and many Australians attempt to resolve legal problems alone or without quality legal support.

“The survey shows that an estimated 8.5 million Australians experience a legal problem each year, but many do not access legal help with these problems. Across Australia, cost was the most common barrier to obtaining legal assistance, with other common barriers relating to access problems such as difficulty getting through to services on the telephone.

“It is vital that these findings be taken into account in the current Federal Government review of legal assistance services, in order to quantify the funding required to establish a proper legal safety net in Australia. At the moment, the legal safety net is full of gaping holes, with many Australians unable to afford to pay for a lawyer but ineligible for legal aid.

“Importantly, the survey confirmed that legal problems can have sometimes severe impacts on people’s health, finances or social circumstances, including stress related illness, physical ill health and relationship breakdown. Access to quality legal help is vital if we want strong and healthy communities.

“The survey report also stresses the need to address connected legal, health, financial and social issues. Community legal centres are well placed to respond to these findings given that most centres either deliver non-legal services in addition to legal services, or co-locate their legal services with non-legal providers such as health services or financial counselling.

The survey findings include:

  • Half of all respondents experienced a legal problem in the last 12 months, with 22 per cent experiencing three or more legal problems.
  • The most common legal problems include consumer (21%) crime (14%) housing (12%) and government (11%).
  • People with a disability and single parents were twice as likely to experience legal problems.
  • Indigenous people were more likely to experience multiple legal problems including government, health and rights related problems.

“Access to quality legal services is often the difference between achieving a just outcome or not. It is clear from the survey findings that we have a long road to travel to improve access to justice in Australia. But with proper government funding, we can make access to justice a reality,” said Mr de Kretser.