The axe falls on legal aid
By Michael Heaney
MELBOURNE — The Federation of Community Legal Centres (Victoria) on February 18 announced the release of a report titled "Justice for all", resulting from a survey conducted in November and December.
Approximately 7000 copies of a questionnaire were distributed to legal practitioners, with the assistance of the Victorian Bar and the Law Institute of Victoria.
The report states that the Howard government plans a $40 million cut in legal aid, in direct contradiction of the a commitment made prior to the election. A report from National Legal Aid states that legal aid in Australia is now underfunded by $64.9 million.
Greg Smith, spokesperson for the National Legal Aid Summit Coordinating Committee, said of the cutback, "Although it will lead to a reduction of government expenditure, there is no doubt (and I've talked to a number of judges about this) that when people go to court unrepresented... cases will run for longer, and the cost to the justice system in the end will be greater.
"The report highlights the fact that a large number of people across the country will not be able to use the courts, will not be able to get just outcomes. These cutbacks clearly reduce access to justice for women."
The survey found that 86% of respondents knew of clients who decided not to contest charges and to plead guilty because of a lack of access to legal aid funding; in 92% of cases where aid had been refused or was unavailable, the person has been unable to pursue a remedy; 12% indicated that cuts to legal aid in family law cases had led to an outcome which was detrimental for the child or children concerned; and
61% had clients who had not applied for legal aid in a criminal matter due to recent legal aid cuts.
Joseph O' Reilly, executive director of the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties, said, "One way that a society can be judged is by the way that it treats its disadvantaged. In terms of this report, Australia fails. Our capacity to treat the disadvantaged with some surety that they will be delivered justice is no longer there."