Volume 9, Issue 12
The Australian public, in particular the readers of a certain Melbourne tabloid, aren’t particularly fond of giving people things for free. Politicians don’t run on the platform of more handouts, especially legal advice.
Victorian Legal Aid funds free legal advice for some of the most disadvantaged people in our society. Legal Aid can manage disputes, provide defence counsel in criminal trials and help families resolve separation issues without going to court. Legal Aid is funded by both the Federal and State Governments.
Since 1997 the Commonwealth Government has steadily reduced its contribution to Legal Aid funding. In 1997 the Commonwealth chipped in $11 per head but by 2019 their contribution will be a mere $7.50. The 2014 Commonwealth budget removed a further $15 million from Legal Aid commissions around the country.
David Neal, the Chair of the Law Council Legal Aid Committee, calls successive reductions in Legal Aid funding ‘appalling’. Each round of cuts has meant that Legal Aid Commissions are forced to reduce eligibility for Legal Aid. According to Mr Neal only 8% of the population qualifies for Legal Aid, effectively disenfranchising a significant portion of the community who do not qualify for assistance yet will struggle to afford legal representation on their own.
The potential effects of these reductions are very dire according to Mr Neal. In criminal cases it is no longer possible to have legal representation unless the accused is likely to go to jail. In Family Violence hearings, the lack of affordable counsel can mean that victims have to cross-examine their abusers.
The justice system is supposed to afford equality to everybody. Yet the burgeoning costs of legal representation force a significant proportion of the population to navigate the justice system unaided, placing them at a significant disadvantage.
Legal Aid is designed to correct power imbalances, and when it cannot it is the justice system as a whole which suffers. It’s high time the public looked past the indignation of the gutter press and demanded restored funding for legal aid commissions in Australia.
Duncan Willis is a first-year JD student
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