Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (20:26): I am rising to speak tonight on access to justice in Australia. To me this is summed up by the phrase 'justice for all'. But what does this actually mean today in 21st century Australia? What should our justice system look like if it is, indeed, achieving justice for all?
'Justice' means that the legal system provides consistent, fair and timely resolution of legal issues. 'For all' means simply that people, whatever their background and financial means, should be able to obtain legal assistance and redress based on the merit of their legal claim and not on the size of their wallet or on their ability to negotiate a complex system.
'Justice for all' also means that all people should be treated equally before the law. In essence, then, justice for all is about our legal system offering more than just a public process for dispute resolution. It is about an accessible legal system that promotes social, cultural and economic inclusion in Australia. It is a means of people being able to identify their rights and take action, if necessary, to see them observed, irrespective of their status, wealth or possessions.
In 2013, however, there is a crisis in our legal system that is increasingly threatening this concept of justice for all. And it is not just affecting the most disadvantaged Australians. Recently, the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW published the Legal Australia-Wide Survey, the LAW Survey, which surveyed 20,716 people. It was the largest legal survey ever conducted in the world. It found that legal problems are widespread, affecting a significant number of Australians. Each year an estimated 8,513,000 people aged 15 years and over in Australia—so, 50 per cent of people aged 15 years and over—faced at least one legal issue. Further, an estimated 22 per cent of people aged 15 years and over in Australia experience three or more legal problems each year. The LAW Survey research also found that 55 per cent of legal problems in Australia are 'substantial' problems that have a 'severe' or 'moderate' impact on everyday life.
The most common consequences of these legal problems were income loss or financial strain, stress related illness, physical ill-health, relationship breakdowns and having to move home. This of course has flow on effects for families, support services and workplace productivity of those who are experiencing the problems. Not surprisingly, disadvantaged and socially excluded groups were particularly vulnerable to legal problems, and it is legal assistance services, legal aid commissions and community legal centres that are there for them.
Legal aid commissions and community legal centres around the nation are crucial to filling the gap in the provision of legal services for the most disadvantaged and marginalised in our community—those who need but cannot afford access to private legal services.
We know that many people experiencing disadvantage often face a multitude of financial, social and legal stressors that can act as barriers to them accessing justice and greater opportunities in life. For example, many people experiencing homelessness incur infringements as a result of living on the streets—being fined for sleeping, living, littering or begging in public places. This can then significantly impede their ability to move out of homelessness, leading to a vicious cycle. Legal assistance services fill a significant gap in the provision of legal services for those Australians who can otherwise not afford legal representation, including low-income earners and people from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Some of them also provide a more holistic model of service delivery by, for example, linking clients with other essential services like health, housing and financial counselling.
In 2013, legal assistance services are increasingly under strain due to underfunding in combination with a growing demand for their services. The 2012 Australian Council of Social Service community sector survey highlighted how community legal centres are struggling to meet demand, waiting lists are increasing and approximately 14 per cent of people who sought assistance in 2010-11 were turned away. The situation is getting worse. Alongside this survey, research from the Australia Institute earlier last year revealed that approximately 500,000 Australians are missing out on essential legal services, yet funding cuts to these services have been occurring over time and in various states in Australia—despite community need. Indeed, looking around, there is stark evidence of these cuts, some of them politically motivated, in states like Queensland and New South Wales, with the Environmental Defender's Office being a case in point. In addition, we have a crisis in Victoria, where serious criminal trials are being halted because Legal Aid Victoria does not have the funds to provide the legal representation and assistance that is needed.
It is essential that legal assistance services are adequately resourced and supported so that they can continue the excellent work they do and so that they can respond to the growing demand for services. A greater investment is needed to address unmet need and gaps in service delivery, which will improve people's ability to access the legal system, deal with their legal problems and prevent the flow-on effects which can impact their health and livelihood and, in fact, cost society dearly.
In addition to a greater investment in legal assistance services, we need to recognise how existing structures and processes within the legal system can act as a barrier to people accessing justice. For example, court fees can be a real barrier to people on low incomes. On 1 January this year, the government introduced changes to the Federal Court's filing fees. There have been dramatic cost increases associated with family law matters such as divorce proceedings, consent orders and new fees for conciliation conferences. The increases to mediation and conciliation fees are hard to reconcile with the government's stated aim to promote and encourage greater use of alternative dispute resolution processes. While the reintroduction of fee waivers and exemptions for disadvantaged litigants is a welcome change, the failure to extend the fee waiver to divorce applications is troubling.
Community Law Australia, which represents community legal centres throughout Australia, has highlighted how these centres provide essential assistance to women escaping abusive or violent relationships. For these women, being able to access divorce processes is a very important step in the recovery process, but for women on low incomes this cost may now be prohibitive. Finding $265 on a sole parent's payment or Newstart is extremely difficult. These higher fees will mostly apply to irregular court users and may be a significant obstacle for self-represented litigants and people on a low income.
It is not just disadvantaged Australians who are having increasing difficulty in accessing justice. Recent evidence has indicated that middle-income Australians, not just those on low incomes, are being excluded from the court system because they cannot afford legal representation and court fees. So the Australian Greens are concerned that these court fee increases will adversely affect a significant proportion of the population, restricting their ability to access justice in Australia. There is also great concern about the potential impacts the fee changes will have on legal aid commissions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services and community legal centres, who will be faced with the stark reality of not being able to represent their clients in court in some cases because their clients cannot afford the fees.
It is for this reason that, on behalf of the Australian Greens, I will be moving tomorrow for a Senate inquiry into the impact of the Federal Court fee increases on low-income and ordinary Australians and operators of small businesses. The inquiry will consider whether these increases are reasonable, how they may be operating as a barrier to accessing justice and the extent to which court fee increases may impact on services provided by legal assistance services such as legal aid commissions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, family violence prevention legal services and community legal services.
Funding our legal assistance services adequately is an important component of assuring that justice is within the reach of all Australians. It is also an excellent community investment, not just in terms of a fairer, more just society but also when it comes to the public purse. There is evidence, for instance, that every dollar spent on community legal centres saves governments $100 in future justice system spending. Also, as the law survey demonstrates, it saves the costs associated with unsolved legal problems like income loss, stress related illnesses, physical ill health, relationship breakdowns, loss of productivity and homelessness. So it just makes good sense. Put simply, access to justice for all people is the hallmark of a fair society—and that, after all, is how we like to see ourselves, isn't it? (Time expired)