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Estimates: Access to Justice Questions

Estimates & Committees
Penny Wright 17 Oct 2012

Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee
Wednesday 17 October 2012

Attorney-General's Department

Senator WRIGHT: I am going to ask you to take on notice questions about the annual amount of Commonwealth funding provided to legal aid services over the past five years with a breakdown for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, community legal centres and family violence prevention legal services, and by state and territory. I will now follow up on some questions asked during budget estimates regarding the review of the national partnership agreement on legal assistance services. Firstly, in May there was no set consultation timetable for the review. Is that timetable now settled and available? If so, can you provide details of the timeframe for consultations and with whom the review is consulting?

Mr Duggan: We have just concluded consultations on the evaluation framework for the review. That concluded at the beginning of October. The timing for the review, the consultants have been appointed and we will expect the process now to get fully underway and be concluded next year.

Senator WRIGHT: Can you give information about who the review will be consulting with?

Mr Duggan: The review by Allen Consulting Group will be consulting all key stakeholders in the area and they have already done a fair bit of that work in starting off with the evaluation framework. For example, all of the legal aid commissions have been consulted, many CLCs have been consulted and many of the ATSILSs also been consulted as well. That will continue.

Senator WRIGHT: In May you indicated that when considering unmet need in the legal system you will be relying on a report that has been in the pipeline for a while commissioned by National Legal Aid. The report which details the findings of the Legal Australia-wide Survey was released last week, on 11 October. Can you explain how the Attorney-General's Department will consider and respond to that survey?

Mr Duggan: As you have indicated, this was a long-awaited survey, certainly by the area. It is the largest legal needs survey conducted anywhere in the world to date and provides important information for Australia. It confirms that access to justice is fundamental to community well-being. It demonstrates also that access to justice for disadvantaged people in particular, those with a disability, must remain a priority. The report indicates that the government's push for a holistic approach to legal and related services is appropriate to address the legal needs of the Australian community. The intention is that the national partnership agreement review which you have just discussed will not deal specifically with unmet need but will rely on that report that you have outlined specifically to inform it about that issue. That report, as you have indicated, recognises that a holistic, integrated approach to service delivery, particularly across legal and broader human services, is still in its infancy in Australia. The law survey provides an invaluable resource for the Australian government on addressing legal need in Australia.

Senator WRIGHT: The survey will inform the review but the review is not looking at unmet need. That has been previously stated quite clearly. So will the department respond to the survey separately and formally?

Mr Duggan: That is a matter for government. It would be a matter for the Attorney. The Attorneys will be given a briefing on the report but current intention is that the report will be considered as part of the review because, as you can appreciate, the provision of these services is not just a matter for the Commonwealth, it is a matter for the Commonwealth and the states combined.

Senator WRIGHT: Thank you for that. Along with the Legal Australia-wide Survey, a number of other recent reports highlighted the significant levels of unmet need in Australia's legal system. For example, a report by the Australia Institute earlier this year highlighted that approximately 500,000 Australians are missing out on accessing essential legal services. As well, the 2012 Australian community sector survey found that 73 per cent of legal services cannot meet demand for their services. Is the department currently doing anything to respond to unmet need in legal services?

Mr Duggan: I can simply indicate to you that the Australian government will invest $1.3 billion in legal assistance programs over the four-year period until June 2014 and that is the largest funding commitment in over a decade.

The government's commitment to funding legal assistance programs has been demonstrated by the investment of an additional $154 million over four years in the 2010-11 budget for Commonwealth legal assistance programs. That funding includes: $92.3 million for legal aid, $43.9 million for Indigenous legal aid and $26.8 million for community legal services. The additional funding in the 2010-11 budget was the most significant injection of new funding for legal assistance services in well over a decade.

There is never enough money. The government is doing the best that it can within the budgetary environment we are currently confronting.

Mr Wilkins: It is probably worth adding that the whole point of the inquiry is to see if there are more efficient and effective ways people can deliver legal services. There is some appetite, particularly among some of the legal aid commissions, for looking at more innovative ways of using money, because, as you would appreciate, the states are also under the pump in terms of their fiscal position. So one thing the government is trying to do-as other states and territory governments-is to try and find how you can use that money more effectively and leverage more and better services for people. That is one thing we are doing to try and meet more need.

Senator WRIGHT: Certainly, although it has been clearly stated that that is not within the ambit of that review-the unmet need itself, which is clearly there now, isn't it?

Mr Wilkins: We do not want to raise expectations, but already the government's national partnership agreement has managed to encourage-I think that is probably the best word-other providers of legal aid in the community and in the states; they are already taking up the idea of trying to use some of their legal services more as a prophylactic, to try and intervene earlier, to give people legal advice so that they do not actually get into crisis situations, which cost a lot more money. So a lot of that is now something people are trying to attend to. In that sense, yes, there is the proposition that we are not going to look at unmet need. What I am giving you is the context for that. It may well be that we can deliver more services and better services with the same amount of money.

Senator WRIGHT: I am interested in exploring the unintended consequences or the degree to which additional legal costs are factored into policy decisions where, if attention was given to the likely consequences of some of the policy decisions, there would be an understanding that they would actually, down the track, require more legal assistance of some kind-or, if in fact that is not forthcoming, then there would be more unmet need. So I am interested in whether the department regularly liaises with other departments and agencies in relation to the implications of major policy decisions on legal assistance services. An example might be the impact of the proposed NDIS-I will come to that in a minute; I just want to clarify what I am talking about here. Does the department regularly liaise with other departments and agencies about those major policy decisions and the potential impacts and legal assistance services? If so, how is it done and are there some examples that you could give me?

Mr Duggan: I am very happy to use the example you have just talked about-that is, the NDIS proposals. The department has been very active, through the Attorney-General, on putting forward the need for there to be significant consideration to the possible impact on service providers as a result of the significant initiative proposed. We are very active in highlighting the impact that is likely to have on a range of our service providers, and indeed we are part of submissions and what-have-you that go to cabinet and to ministers generally in relation to that point. So the answer to your question is: yes, we vigorously pursue those avenues as best we can, and certainly the government is well aware of the potential impact on our service providers.

Senator WRIGHT: Another example I might give you is: has the department considered the impact of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children on legal assistance services? If so, what is the likely impact, and what action is being taken to ensure that legal assistance services will be adequately funded to respond to any such impact?

Mr Duggan: The Commonwealth already provides significant funding in relation to a range of areas in relation to violence against women-in particular, through the Family Violence Prevention Legal Services and dedicated Indigenous services, which are designed to assist particularly women but obviously all those who suffer from family violence. The Commonwealth spends $19 million on those services per annum. Much of the services that are being provided in relation to the strategy you mentioned do not come within our bailiwick, but the Commonwealth is well aware of the impact of much of that on our service providers. Of course, generally speaking, the laws they relate to are the responsibility of the states and territories.

Senator WRIGHT: The Legal Australia-Wide Survey calls for 'a holistic approach to justice' comprising multiple, integrated strategies to cater for the different needs within communities, and suggests tailored, targeted and intensive assistance for people with complex legal and non-legal needs. How is the department ensuring that Australian legal assistance services are being provided in this holistic way?

Mr Wilkins: That is certainly something that the review is looking at, but I think you need to be very careful about that, Senator. If one goes overboard in terms of this holistic approach-which is sensible in terms of breaking down some of the silos et cetera that exist-you might end up with a blancmange instead of some clear boundaries about people's legal problems and lawyers dealing with people's legal problems. I think you just need to be a bit careful about that general proposition; nevertheless, we do need to contemplate where there are silly barriers to cooperation. I think this inquiry that we have been talking about will go some way to addressing that. It is certainly something we are conscious of. All I am saying is it can be overstated. It can lead in some wrong directions as well.

Senator WRIGHT: So when you refer to 'the inquiry', do you mean the current review?

Mr Wilkins: Yes, sorry, the review.

Senator WRIGHT: There is not actually a particular strategy or approach that the Attorney-General's Department applies at this stage?

Mr Wilkins: No. I think the way you put the proposition-it would be a nonsense to have a strategy to address that.

Senator WRIGHT: To address the intersection of legal needs and other needs in dealing with the problems that people-

Mr Wilkins: No, not that. That makes sense. But you were talking about some holistic or whole-of-government view of-

Senator WRIGHT: That is not what I said at all.

Mr Wilkins: Do you want to put the proposition again.

Senator WRIGHT: Perhaps you misunderstood what I was saying.

Mr Wilkins: Perhaps I did. Do you want to put the proposition again.

Senator WRIGHT: It was the 'holistic approach to justice'-

Mr Wilkins: That is what I thought.

Senator WRIGHT: that justice is part of people's lives and experiences, multiple integrated strategies, different needs within communities, and tailored, targeted and intensive assistance to people with complex legal and non-legal needs.

Mr Wilkins: I think that is something the review would be looking at. In a whole range of areas, we look at that. There is a huge number of programs that we run. Insofar as you are talking about customising services, getting rid of some of the barriers to cooperation, that is something that I expect we would be embraced, whatever area of policy we were looking at, across areas from family law through to areas of criminal law.

Senator WRIGHT: Thank you.


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