The Australian Legal Assistance Sector and the Critical Importance of Justice to Human Lives
In February 2017, I was invited to be an ‘expert adviser’ for the Law Council of Australia’s (LCA) ‘Justice Project’. I was initially reticent. Senate Inquiries (2004; 2009; 2015), reviews, a survey in Australia of the overloaded Legal Assistance Sector (Allen’s Review 2011; 2012 Australia-wide Law Survey; Productivity Commission 2016; Victorian Justice Department 2017) saw poor government responsiveness and funding. I have written previously on this Blog and for the International Legal Aid Group, on this. An exception was a small funding reversal in 2017, previously unheard of, for family violence services, but, only after the government had left itself exposed on family violence in Australia after a cross- sector successful campaign. Still however, there is a significant shortfall.
So, when the LCA approached me in February last year, I was somewhat reticent about ‘yet another Inquiry which would lead no-where’. However, in preliminary discussions the LCA project team were willing to look at practicalities and ‘nuts and bolts’ of what innovation looks like and, compellingly for me, the inquiry’s focus on those ‘with significant social and economic disadvantage’, as well as identifying what is working to reduce those barriers. This preparedness to deepen the discussions and an impressive Steering Group including a former Chief Justice of the High Court, the Chief Executive of the Australian Council of Social Services and President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, convinced me to enlist.
Over a year on, the huge task of the LCA, embarking on a project of a scale it has never undertaken before, has been comprehensive. Its exploration has drilled down deeper that any such inquiry and for a cohort that is often invisible.
The Terms of Reference we developed highlight this. The LCA team set about an expansive literature review and what has been unique is that they have conceded that not all initiatives and innovative programs have been written up in peer reviewed research and accepted the dearth of research conducted in Australia. There is a welcome exception to this in the Australia-wide Law Survey in 2012, but since and before 2012 there have been gaps, save for some often underfunded or fragmented philanthropic research. This point is noted by the Productivity Commission in Chapter 25 (Recommendations 25.1-5). Their expansive definition of literature has enabled the LCA staff to broaden to current literature including conference paper presentations on programs with few resources that deliver their services, often in remote parts of Australia. They tend to have little time or energy to document their work, as they are cash-strapped services which rarely have access to researchers or evaluation money. These projects are having impacts on lives and the LCA pivotal work shares such innovations, that otherwise would never see the light of day. Its combining of traditional research with a blend of qualitative and new data enables a new narrative.
The LCA has engaged in an analysis of a range of 13 specific disadvantaged groups highlighting hardship caused for the poor and their under-resourced services.
The then LCA President and team took to the road in 2017, visiting rural, regional and metro locations Australia-wide to gather evidence, and took 130 submissions in response to consultation questions and papers. In the recent Progress Report, the LCA estimates that, as a minimum, an additional $390 million per annum is required just to get the legal assistance system (which are services tightly targeting the most poor and disadvantaged in society) back on its feet: more than the $200 million the Productivity Commission said was needed a few years ago.
The Progress Report documents frankly people’s battle with complex systems designed to bewilder, confuse and disempower them, plus the impacts of complex needs. It is exciting that the LCA has looked at current innovative practices, some of which have not been documented before, which were borne out of community necessity. It, like the Productivity Commission recommendations 21.1.-21.9), sees as imperative systemic solutions in legal assistance services to prevent problems. It describes how these have been operationalised, unlike previous, more abstract Inquiries, with some of the ‘nuts and bolts’ insights so that others can learn, adapt and replicate. I have written about multi-disciplinary practices, as one example they flag, to extend reach. The LCA also endorses such holistic, joined up collaboration.
The LCA’s work is of immense value in different jurisdictions, also facing austerity measures. The LCA shows that justice and human rights are contingent on Rule of Law adherence, through improving and overcoming barriers to being heard and early access to sound, free legal advice for the poor and disadvantaged.
What the LCA study achieves is the documentation of lived human experience and the impact and social and health outcomes of poor justice. Often such lawyer-lead initiatives are characterised by media and government as the ‘lawyer industry’ and capitalise on unfortunate poor lawyer stereotypes. This study makes me excited because it focusses on people, not lawyers and the legal system, which makes it rare and valuable. The centrality of why an accessible justice system is key to democratic ideals and equality was underscored in the Current and Past President of the LCA National Press Club address.
We are now working on the Recommendations and Final Report due for the release later in the year.