Productivity Commission acknowledges unmet legal need, sparks vital debate on action to address access to justice crisis

The Productivity Commission draft report on Access to Justice Arrangements released today offers welcome acknowledgment of unmet legal need in Australia and the Commission’s draft recommendations will spark a vital public debate on how to address the worsening access to justice crisis in Australia.

“We are pleased the Commission clearly supports funding legal assistance based on need, and has questioned whether current government investment is adequate. In particular, the report notes that Australia spends less than one third per capita on free legal assistance compared with the UK (p663),” said Community Law Australia’s national spokesperson Carolyn Bond AO today.

Ms Bond said this was consistent with Community Law Australia’s calls to double (extra $40m) Federal funding for community legal centres.

She agreed with the Commission that more needed to be done to map unmet legal need, but noted that there is already ample evidence that many people are missing out, including those turned away from community legal centres due to chronic underfunding.

The Commission has proposed a reallocation of funding for community legal centres to better target geographic areas of need. However, given the lack of adequate funding, moving funds around will do little to address the problem of unmet demand. The Commission is also considering alternative models for allocating funding to community legal centres.

“Any alternative models would need to respond to identified legal need, avoid further rationing of legal assistance services, and acknowledge the different roles played by community legal centres as independent, not-for-profit and community managed organisations that offer free legal help tailored to their local communities,” Ms Bond said.

A recent cost-benefit analysis shows that community legal centres return $18 of value for every dollar invested. Ms Bond welcomed the Commission’s finding that underfunding legal assistance resulted in other costs to government flowing from unresolved and escalating legal problems.

The report states that the evidence “shows that as disadvantage ‘concentrates’, vulnerability to multiple legal problems is heightened” (p629).

“People experiencing poverty and disadvantage are the mainstay of the clients seen by community legal centres, 80 per cent of whom earn less than $26,000 per annum. Community legal centres have a unique contribution to make as independent, community-based services providing vital legal assistance to people living in poverty and disadvantage,” she said.

Ms Bond also welcomed the report’s finding on the value of systemic advocacy, including policy and law reform work by community legal centres. The report states (p.625):

The Commission considers that advocacy should be a core activity of [legal aid commissions] and [community legal centres] (particularly peak bodies and the larger [community legal centres]).

“Advocacy increases the efficiency of free legal assistance by improving laws and policies that affect thousands of people. These people would otherwise need to seek help from lawyers and legal services,” Ms Bond said.

She welcomed a range of other draft recommendations in the report, including better consumer protections for people seeking help through private lawyers and increased use of alternative dispute resolution in appropriate disputes.

Community legal centres will be making detailed submissions to the Commission and offering a more detailed public analysis of the report.

Examples of free legal help by community legal centres were tweeted from around Australia during the Community Law Australia Day of Action held last week (hashtag #unlockthelaw).

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

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