Unaffordable and out of reach: the problem of access to the Australian legal system

Social isolation Communities Human rights Australia

The report gathers recent research and inquiry recommendations, together with commentary from prominent legal figures to paint a concerning picture of Australia's justice system and what needs to happen to change it.

In 2009, then Federal Attorney General Robert McClelland said that the “critical test” for the justice system is whether it is “fair, simple, affordable and accessible.” For many Australians, the legal system is failing on all these fronts.

The high price of legal services means that many Australians would find it difficult to pay for a lawyer for anything but the most basic legal issues. When people who can’t afford a lawyer turn to government funded legal assistance services, they find that due to chronic funding shortages, ongoing help is often restricted to those on the lowest incomes, and then only for a limited range of mainly family law and criminal law issues. Unlike the health and education system in Australia, there is no universal safety net for legal help.

Australians underpaid by their employer, bullied at work or discriminated against, or in debt and facing repossession of their home, involved in a dispute with their insurer over flood damage, or who are elderly and being financially abused by their carer or family, will often find it extremely difficult to access free ongoing legal help if they can’t afford a lawyer.

Repeated government and Parliamentary inquiries over the past decade have recognised that the legal system is out of reach for many Australians. Legal assistance bodies, law societies, the courts, community agencies and politicians from all the major parties have highlighted the problem. Yet, despite some worthwhile policy initiatives, the large scale reforms needed to remedy the situation have not been undertaken.

In particular, Australian Government funding for legal assistance services has failed to keep pace with demand, inflation and population growth, and budget figures show falls in real terms in per capita funding for the next three years.

This report highlights the problems faced by many Australians in accessing the legal system. The report synthesizes research, reports and information on access to the legal system from a range of sources over the past decade.

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