As Law Week 2012 comes to a close today, it gives us reason to reflect on whether our legal system is achieving justice for all. Justice.For All. What does that mean, today, in 21st century Australia?
"Justice" requires that the legal system provide consistent, fair and timely resolution of legal issues. "For all" means that people, whatever their background and financial means, should be able to access legal assistance and redress based on the merit of their legal claim and not the size of their wallet or their ability to negotiate a complex system.
"Justice for all" also means that all people should be treated equally before the law.
In essence, then, justice for all is about our legal system offering more than just a public process for dispute resolution. It is about an accessible legal system that promotes social, cultural and economic inclusion.
In all their manifestations, legal assistance services do just this. Legal aid commissions around the nation and Community Legal Centres are crucial to filling the gap in the provision of legal services for the most disadvantaged and marginalised in our community - those who need, but cannot afford, access to private legal services.
We know that many people experiencing disadvantage often face a multitude of financial, social and legal stressors that can act as barriers to them accessing justice and greater opportunities. For example, many homeless people incur infringements as a result of living on the streets (being fined for sleeping, living, littering or begging in public places). This can then significantly impede their ability to move out of homelessness. A vicious cycle ensues. It is essential that legal services are adequately funded to respond to the many legal issues faced by people in circumstances like this.
Legal assistance services also play a crucial role in highlighting systemic issues in our legal system which disproportionately affect disadvantaged people, advocating strongly on behalf of the community for law reform.
Unfortunately, many Legal Aid Commissions and Community Legal Centres run on a shoestring budget, and are just not able to keep up with the demand for their services. Those of us who have worked in these agencies (in my case, various community legal centres) are all too familiar with the experience of turning away a person with a meritorious case because our capacity to assist has been exhausted.
Funding our legal assistance services adequately is an excellent community investment, not just in terms of a fairer, more just society, but also when it comes to the public purse. Every dollar spent on community legal centres saves governments $100 in future justice system spending. It just makes good sense!
Arising from a sense of duty to the community and a commitment to seeing the law applied fairly, the Australian legal profession also has a proud record of providing pro bono (free) legal services to some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our community. This is not always recognised by the wider community but should be acknowledged. Along with legal assistance services, this contributes to providing access to justice for those who would otherwise be shut out.
Access to justice for all people is the hallmark of a fair society. To achieve this we must ensure that Australia's legal assistance services are adequately resourced and supported.