The impending cuts to the funding of Community Legal Centres from 1 July 2017 present serious risks, not only to the capacity of the legal assistance sector to assist low-income and disadvantaged people within the Australian community, but also the ability of many law firms to deliver much needed pro bono legal services.
Growth in mid-sized firm pro bono
In the past year mid-sized firms have provided significant growth in the pro bono capacity needed to help people who cannot otherwise access the justice system due to poverty or other disadvantage.
This year, 58% of the mid-sized firms which are signatories to the National Pro Bono Aspirational Target either met or exceeded the benchmark of 35 pro bono hours per lawyer per year (up from 30% last year) and firms with between 50 to 449 lawyers provided 185,839 hours of pro bono legal work in FY2016. Much of this is dependent on firms’ partnerships with Community Legal Centres (CLCs). (Source: Australian Pro Bono Centre, October 2016)
Negative impact of funding cuts on access to justice
While the contribution of mid-sized firms is growing, the provision of pro bono assistance and partnerships cannot be a substitute for adequate Government funding of the legal assistance sector.
The Productivity Commission’s report on Access to Justice Arrangements found that legal assistance services are already underfunded. We are concerned that the funding cliff facing CLCs nationally — a 30% reduction in existing Commonwealth funding — will make the situation even worse for vulnerable and disadvantaged clients across Australia. The impact is likely to be greater for the pro bono clients that mid-sized firms assist as we are more heavily reliant on the ability to partner with legal assistance services, particularly CLCs, to provide pro bono assistance.
The expectations of mid-sized firms were emphasised by High Court Judge, the Honourable Justice Virginia Bell AC, during her launch last month of the new editions of the Australian Pro Bono Manual and its companion guide, Pro Bono Partnerships and Models – A Practical Guide to What Works. These new editions of the Australian Pro Bono Centre’s flagship resources are deliberately focused on building the pro bono capacity of mid-sized firms. However, these publications confirm that the delivery of almost every model of law firm pro bono requires some kind of partnership with a CLC.
Our firms partner with CLCs in a wide range of ways, including through the provision of advice and assistance, secondments, and staffing of legal clinics. The CLCs use their unique position in the community to identify areas of greatest need and help us reach the clients most in need. Without the CLCs’ specialised expertise, we would be unable to train and supervise our commercial lawyers who do not usually practice in the areas of law in which unmet legal need is greatest, and would therefore be unable to take on this pro bono work.
Call to reverse funding cuts
The mid-sized firms listed below wish to add their voice to calls for the reversal of the funding cuts and the adoption of the Productivity Commission’s recommendations for civil legal assistance, moving towards the additional $200m of annual legal assistance sector civil funding recommended by the Productivity Commission, including an additional annual $120m from the Commonwealth Government.
While the $5 million announced last month for an extra year’s funding for the CLCs and Legal Aid Commissions running the legal assistance pilots under the Women’s Safety Package is welcome, it does not come close to bridging the funding gap.
We support the calls made by the National Association of Community Legal Centre’s Community Law Australia #FundEqualJustice campaign, the Law Council of Australia’s #LegalAidMatters campaign, the 2015 letter from leaders of pro bono practices at Australian law firms to the Attorneys-General in all Australian governments, and the Open Letter from Pro Bono Practices in Australian law firms of 24 June 2016.
We urge the Commonwealth, and State and Territory Governments to work with the legal assistance sector to immediately reverse the funding cuts and to develop a plan for long-term and sustainable funding contributions for legal assistance services.