Proctor : June 2017
12 PROCTOR | June 2017 Access to justice: It all comes down to funding QLS scorecard reveals profession’s key concerns Since 2013, Queensland Law Society (through its Access to Justice and Pro Bono Law Committee) has conducted an annual survey of lawyers to gauge their views about the state of access to justice in Queensland. In the 2016 Access to Justice Scorecard, lack of funding for legal assistance was yet again a key concern identified by Queensland lawyers. In April, community legal centres (CLCs) across Australia secured a major commitment by the federal Attorney-General to reverse funding cuts of 30% that were set to commence this month. While this was welcome news, barriers remain for Queenslanders to access the legal help they need, and the justice they deserve. Lack of funding for legal help In every scorecard since 2013, Queensland lawyers have persistently reiterated their concerns about the parlous state of funding for all pillars of the legal assistance sector. 1 The legal profession knows that a well-functioning system requires its frontline agencies to be properly resourced; making services jostle for meagre resources can never adequately deliver justice for vulnerable people. Last year, Queensland CLCs provided legal help to almost 60,000 people, but an equal number were turned away. People suffer – they lose their children; their livelihoods; their money; their hope. People like Rachel, a single mother of two whose former partner is abusive and threatens her safety and that of her two sons. While Rachel is trying to formalise the divorce, she is also forced to seek a domestic violence order. Without a community lawyer representing her, Rachel’s legal problems would have multiplied. Or Dave, who started a traineeship after he left school. Dave’s boss refused to pay him for the overtime he worked and sacked him when he complained, months before the end of his traineeship. A community lawyer helped Dave negotiate the system to recover his unpaid wages. Or Arlia, who got help from a community lawyer to escape her violent husband and apply for protection, having arrived in Australia on a spousal visa. Funding cuts – no way to run a business The proposed funding cuts to CLCs were announced in 2013, prior to the introduction of a National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services that was intended to provide funding certainty until 2020. Instead, this sword of Damocles has undermined efforts to deliver services to Queensland clients. For months, CLCs have been planning to implement cuts on the ground. CLC staff are leaving for jobs with greater certainty and stability. Entire programs have been wound back or closed, with more vulnerable clients being turning away. When the Queensland Government announced how the Federal Government’s funding reduction would be shared across the state in March2 more legal programs were placed at risk, including specialist help for Aboriginal mothers on Palm Island; young people leaving state care; people leaving prison without adequate support. As QLS president Christine Smyth said at this year’s QLS Symposium: “Our CLCs are in a state of crisis and are heading toward extinction due to the federal funding fiscal cliff; their future is now at risk. This means that basic justice... is being denied in particular to tens of thousands of people who are disadvantaged in our community each year.” 3 Unexpectedly, the Federal Government announced that the funding would be reinstated following sustained advocacy from a broad alliance of lawyers, churches, unions, opposition/cross-bench/state MPs, universities and community groups, and strong media coverage. Professional associations including QLS played a key role, with the Attorney-General acknowledging that “[t]he legal profession, in aggregate, has been active and influential in engaging with the Government and once again, it is as a result of that engagement that these decisions ... have been made”. 4 Looking ahead The decision to reinstate funding to CLCs is welcome, but it only reverses imminent damage and does nothing to future-proof the legal assistance sector from further cutbacks. Nor does it inject any new money into an already overburdened system. The Productivity Commission conservatively estimates that $200 million a year is needed for legal providers to expand their services. To put this funding need in context, $200 million is only slightly more than a quarter of what the Commonwealth Government annually spends on external legal services.5 Access to justice and innovation Sustainable, recurrent funding also helps to drive innovation in the legal assistance sector. The use of technology to reduce costs for parties and to simplify complex court procedures requires an investment in human and technical resources. A number of sentiments expressed in the 2016 Scorecard focused on how much more could be done to embrace innovations in modern technology, especially to assist increasing numbers of self-represented litigants appearing in court.