In an open letter to the attorneys-general in all Australian governments, ten leaders of pro bono practices at Australian law firms have expressed concern that present and future funding arrangements in the legal assistance sector will adversely impact pro bono programs that assist low-income and disadvantaged people.
“Virtually none of our pro bono work for low-income and disadvantaged people could be performed without partnerships and relationships with legal assistance services, including with CLCs. The individual clients we assist on a pro bono basis usually are referred to us by a legal assistance service or attend one of the outreach clinics we conduct with a legal assistance service. The delivery of many pro bono services by the private legal profession requires a partnership or collaboration with effectively functioning legal assistance services.”
A central concern is that the approximately 200 small and under-resourced CLCs, who provide a large part of government-funded civil-law assistance in Australia, and already rely heavily on volunteers, will have their capacity to assist low-income and disadvantaged clients further reduced by the funding arrangements after June 30, 2017 when the ‘restoration of Commonwealth funding for the legal assistance sector’ will cease.
The letter, published in The Australian on 24 June, states that pro bono legal work cannot be a substitute for government funded legal assistance — not just philosophically, but as a matter of ‘practical reality’. Despite the strong pro bono culture in Australia, large firm pro bono work could amount to 3 per cent or less of the capacity of legal assistance services to assist their clients. In major areas of unmet legal need such as family law, criminal law, and immigration, and in regional areas, large firms have little capacity to offer pro bono assistance.
The letter urges the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments to follow the recommendations of the Productivity Commission’s report into access to justice arrangements, and to increase funding to the legal assistance sector by $200 million per year, including a further $120 million from the Commonwealth. It cites the Productivity Commission finding that ‘not providing legal assistance for unresolved civil problems for low-income and disadvantaged people is a false economy, as the costs of unresolved problems are shifted to other areas of government spending’.
These concerns echo the Law Council’s #LegalAidMatters, and Community Law Australia’s #FundEqualJustice campaigns.
The Centre also wrote to the Commonwealth Attorney-General on 17 June 2016 to support the submission from the National Association of Community Legal Centres requesting the Commonwealth:
- to reverse the $12.1 million funding cut to Community Legal Centres nationally in 2017-2018, the $11.6 million cut in 2018-2019 and the $11.13 million cut in 2019-2020 (amounting to a $34.83 million cut over the period 2017-18 to 2019-2020) under the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services; and
- to implement the Productivity Commission’s recommendation from its Access to Justice Arrangements Inquiry and provide an immediate injection of $120 million per year additional funding into the legal assistance sector, including at a minimum an additional$14.4 million per year to Community Legal Centres