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Pay now or pay later: Why the access to justice crisis must be addressed now

Penny Wright 3 Sep 2013

No one is above the law. It's a maxim we enforce and celebrate in Australia. But what if it's not true?

Increasingly in Australia more and more people are, in fact, below the law. For hundreds and thousands of Australians, 'the law' - justice - is out of reach. It's too expensive, too complex.

Access to justice is no longer just an issue for traditionally disadvantaged people, like the poor, new arrivals or those who have disabilities or mental illness.  We have allowed this crisis to grow and spread, so that middle-income Australians are also being excluded from the court system because of rising costs.

Half of all Australians over 15 will face a legal issue this year. Many will not have the money or the skills to negotiate our legal system.

Legal issues can be daunting and 'legalese' even more confusing. The demand for legal assistance is far greater than our present system can supply.

Equality before the law must not be left to chance. If we don't put in the money now, society as a whole will pay down the track.

Legal problems are often associated with financial strain, stress-related illness and relationship breakdowns. And when people are restricted from the justice system, it is not surprising some will look to take matters into their own hands.

Substance abuse, mental illness, suicide and homelessness are also linked with unresolved legal issues.

Those who can't afford private lawyers turn to legal assistance services - legal aid or community legal centres. But legal aid and community legal centres across Australia are under enormous pressure - under-resourced to the point of turning away clients.

It would be hard to imagine how many of these people could have found justice if they'd had the chance.

Funding legal assistance services is a great investment. A 2006 study showed that for every dollar spent on a community legal centre, the government saves $100 later on in the justice system.

This is why the Australian Greens have today announced an $842.6 million package [link] to keep these centres open and to help more Australians get the legal outcomes they deserve.

You see, even though legal assistance services save money and are essential to our democracy, they are under attack from Coalition state governments.

In recent times state governments in NSW and Queensland have cut funding to Community Legal Centres and imposed new restrictions on what they do best - advocating for fairer laws.

The Queensland Government has gagged these voices for the voiceless by adding clauses to funding agreements that community organisations 'must not advocate for state or federal legislative change'. 

The NSW government has issued "guidelines" that legal assistance services must not engage in "public campaigning or advocacy" including the use of traditional and social media.  Yet this can be a crucial way to change laws which are unfair or impact disproportionately on some disadvantaged groups in society.

The Australian Greens know equality before the law doesn't just happen. We believe the judiciary's status as an independent institution of government is worth resourcing properly.

We believe that access to justice is an issue for everyone, and that rights become privileges if they are not able to be enforced equally.

We cannot celebrate a society where no one is above the law if basic justice is out of the reach of so many.

Access to justice is a cornerstone of a modern democratic society.  Australia is currently failing the test.

If the old parties do not join the Australian Greens in standing up for justice, we will all pay for it later.


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