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Productivity Commission recommends extra funding for legal services

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 4 Dec 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (17:12):  The Australian Greens welcome this report of the Productivity Commission inquiry into access to justice arrangements, but I would not be surprised if the Attorney-General finds it hard to do so, because it lays out for all to see the flaws in this government's approach to legal assistance. It is a substantial report-almost 1,000 pages-with a total of 83 recommendations. So there is much to consider. The Australian Greens will be looking at it very closely. However, it is already clear to me that the Productivity Commission's report runs counter to the Commonwealth government's current agenda of funding cuts and advocacy restrictions. I will come to both of these in a minute.

The Australian Greens firmly believe that access to justice is a cornerstone of a modern democratic society. We know that a fair and just society with equality before the law does not just happen. Every year, half a million Australians miss out on essential legal services and hundreds of thousands of others never pursue justice because the legal system is just too complex and too expensive. These problems have been recognised by the Productivity Commission in this report. The Productivity Commission recognises that access to justice is no longer just an issue for traditionally disadvantaged people, such as people who are poor, new arrivals or those who have disabilities or mental illness.

It talks about the 'missing middle'-middle-income Australians who do not qualify for legal aid but also do not have the cash for large and unexpected legal costs.

The Productivity Commission report raises a number of ways we can address this issue and the broader challenges with access to justice. I would like to speak briefly to two of these. The first is increased funding for legal assistance services and the second is the efficiency of advocacy and law reform work by those services.

The report has recommended additional funding from Commonwealth, state and territory governments of around $200 million a year for legal assistance services to be used for better alignment of the means test used by legal aid commissions with other measures of disadvantage, to maintain existing front-line services that have a demonstrated benefit to the community and to allow legal assistance providers to offer a greater number of services in areas of law that have not previously attracted funding.

It is particularly important to note that the commission has noted that belt-tightening and tough financial circumstances are not an excuse to scrimp on legal assistance. The report says:

Not providing legal assistance in these instances can be a false economy as the costs of unresolved problems are often shifted to other areas of government spending such as health care, housing and child protection. Numerous Australian and overseas studies show that there are net public benefits from legal assistance expenditure.

Secondly, I would like to note that the Australian Greens are very pleased that this report has recognised, from an economic perspective, that advocacy and law reform work are an efficient use of government funding. I have had arguments with Senator Brandis, the Attorney-General, many, many times about this issue. But I hope the fact that Australia's Productivity Commission has set out the case for advocacy will enable this government to now see sense and reverse its nonsensical and purely ideological restrictions on the use of Commonwealth funds for this purpose.

Quoting from the report again:

Frontline service delivery should be prioritised, along with advocacy work where it efficiently and effectively solves systemic issues which would otherwise necessitate more extensive individualised service provision ... The Australian, State and Territory Governments should provide funding for strategic advocacy and law reform activities that seek to identify and remedy systemic issues and so reduce demand for frontline services.

As the Australian Greens' spokesperson for legal affairs, I have spoken consistently about the need to reform and improve access to justice since coming to this place. I care deeply about supporting and strengthening community legal services so that every Australian can seek justice to ensure that legal issues can be resolved on the merits of their claim and not the size of their wallet. It is fundamental to our democracy that our legal system is open to everyone who has been wronged and is seeking a fair outcome, not just those who happen to have big incomes.

I hope I will be speaking to this place again soon about these issues, but next time I hope that I will be speaking in support of Commonwealth reforms based on this Productivity Commission report to help take us down the path to improved access to justice. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

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