The Law Council of Australia has welcomed the Federal Government's cancellation of millions of dollars worth of cuts to legal assistance services, describing it as a huge relief with profound consequences for the justice system, and thousands of vulnerable Australians.
The Government was due to slash AU$35 million from the sector in the upcoming Budget, a 30% cut which the Council says would have devastated community legal centres (CLCs) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS), leaving tens of thousands of people cut off from legal assistance.
Law Council President, Fiona McLeod SC, says the decision is a “tremendous victory for access to justice in Australia".
"Each year, tens of thousands of Australians experience legal problems and cannot access help due to the inadequate funding of legal assistance. Without legal intervention, these problems often spiral out of control, creating enormous financial and social costs,” she says.
"The scheduled budget cuts would have significantly deepened the funding crisis affecting the legal assistance sector, with enormous downstream costs to taxpayers.
"Those who work in the legal assistance sector are the unsung heroes of our community, working long hours in extremely challenging conditions to achieve justice for their clients.
"This announcement will be a great relief for those dedicated lawyers and their clients. It heads off an impending disaster, as many community legal centres, particularly in regional areas, were set to close.
"CLCs are also the conduits for an enormous amount of pro bono legal work contributed by the private profession. This contribution which would have diminished if the cuts had proceeded."
Ms McLeod noted that while the cancellation of the cuts staved off the immediate 'funding cliff' crisis, it is clear that much more is needed to address the structural and systemic underfunding of legal aid including legal assistance services, which have suffered from over 20 years of funding neglect by successive Federal Governments.
"In 2014, the Productivity Commission recommended an additional $200 million in legal assistance funding, noting the substantial savings for taxpayers by reducing costs and demand for the courts and other services," Ms McLeod said.
"Today marks a critically important victory, but the fight for proper legal assistance funding will continue."