As part of Anti-Poverty Week 2015, UNSW Law and the Australian Human Rights Centre jointly convened a two day workshop – Law and Poverty in Australia 40 years after the Sackville Report – to assess the extent of legal change in the four decades since the release of the Second Main Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Poverty (the Sackville Report), and to examine the challenges presented by poverty to lawyers, policy-makers and legal scholars. The key themes were the intersection between the alleviation of injustice and the alleviation of poverty and disadvantage, the ways in which community attitudes shape policy and the administration of justice, and the criminalisation of poverty.
In his opening address, the Honourable Acting Justice Ronald Sackville AO placed the Sackville Report in historical context and critically assessed its impact. The Sackville Report, he said, examined what it saw as the law’s laissez-fair approach to social and economic inequality. In step with the optimism of the era, the report saw the courts, the legislature and legal institutions as key instruments to right such wrongs. The 1970s witnessed landmark law reform, including the recognition of a right to social welfare for those in poverty. In Acting Justice Sackville’s view, however, the report overstated both the ability of law reform to alleviate poverty, and the extent to which the law could spearhead broader changes in social attitudes.
These remarks were echoed in the discussions that followed. Prof. Peter Saunders (Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW) spoke on the evolving definition of poverty. Forty years ago poverty was contrived purely as a function of income, measured using tools such as the Henderson Poverty Line (usually set at 50% of median income). Although still applied to determine entitlements such as qualification for legal assistance, credit and insurance, the Henderson Poverty Line now stands alongside measures of functional deprivation arising from factors such as educational, geographic or social disadvantage and access to services.
Prof Julian Disney (The Social Justice Project) highlighted the impact of tax on poverty and social injustice. Taxation policy, he said, affects daily spending choices, which in turn affect the price of necessities.
Dr Cassandra Goldie (ACOSS) spoke of the vulnerability facing those experiencing poverty and disadvantage, often due to a lack of asset resources and the inability to access social and legal institutions. Dr Goldie’s points were also discussed by Prof Brendan Edgeworth (UNSW Law) in relation to social housing tenure; by Carolyn Bond AO (Consumer Affairs Advisory Council) in relation to consumer debt; by Anthony O’Donnell (Social Science s and Commerce, La Trobe) as regards low income wage-earners; and by Dr Jed Horner (NCOSS) as regards the LGBTI community.
Prof Larissa Behrendt (Jumbunna House of Indigenous Learning, UTS) further developed Dr Goldie’s points in their application to Indigenous communities, proposing an empowerment model that overcomes disadvantage by enabling communities to identify and address their own needs. Ms Melanie Schwartz (UNSW Law) discussed the legal assistance sector’s inability to meet unmet civil and family law needs in Indigenous communities, and how early intervention in simpler civil cases can prevent escalation into criminal proceedings.
The workshop also explored the issue of the criminalisation of poverty as a barrier to justice. Prof Eileen Baldry (Arts and Social Sciences, UNSW) discussed criminalisation associated with disability, and Dr Vicki Sentas (UNSW Law) discussed ways in which criminal process acts upon, and exacerbates, poverty in Indigenous and migrant communities.
Assoc Prof Beth Goldblatt (Faculty of Law, UTS) discussed the right to social security and its limitations in combatting poverty, insecurity and equality, comparing the Australian environment to other international communities. Scarlet Wilcox (UNSW Law) discussed how the receipt of welfare has become a lever for routine surveillance, and examined the way shifting societal discourse around the vulnerable has legitimised the criminalisation of welfare recipients.
Prof Andrea Durbach (UNSW Law) cited two examples of procedural reforms that undermine the Sackville Report’s aspirations for law to combat inequality. Firstly, as the shrinking legal aid budget is increasingly channeled into criminal law, there are fewer opportunities for early intervention in civil cases involving those experiencing disadvantage, which increases the risk of criminal charges being laid. Secondly, the policy shift towards Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) has the insidious effect of undermining public interest litigation.
Prof Malcolm Langford (Law, University of Oslo) noted that in the past 40 years responsive law, which attends to society’s most marginalised, has been scaled back both domestically and internationally. Prof Wouter Vanderhole (Law, University of Antwerp) presented on the international, legal and political framing of poverty as an issue of development for human rights.
In closing the workshop, Acting Justice Sackville expressed his optimism for the future of legal assistance and its positive impact on communities throughout Australia.