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A smarter, fairer justice system

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 5 Mar 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (20:26):  I rise to speak tonight about the Australian Greens vision for a fairer, smarter justice system for all Australians and the urgent steps must be taken now by this government to get us there. A smart, fair justice system is critical to social cohesion, community safety and the responsible use of taxpayers' dollars. Understanding the limits of government power, knowing how you should be able to expect to be treated at work and having access to professional help to resolve legal disputes or family breakdowns-these are all ingredients of a peaceful, productive, vibrant Australia.

By many measures Australia does have a justice system to be proud of. We have an independent judiciary. We have professional law enforcement agencies and a robust and generous legal profession. But sadly, for more and more Australians, the idea of justice-of understanding the law, having your case heard, getting a fair and final decision or calmly and carefully resolving a dispute-remains out of reach. Cruel and counterproductive funding cuts, totalling well over $40 million since the election of this federal Abbott government, have seen community legal centres and legal assistance services forced to turn more and more people in need away. Courts and tribunals have felt the squeeze of efficiency strategies, mandatory sentencing policies and other legislative changes designed to remove lawyers and limit judicial discretion. The result is at best a confusing system that fails to take into account individual experiences and leaves people without the help they need to understand what the law is and how the system works; at worst, it is a system that leads to unfair outcomes, particularly for those not privileged enough to obtain private legal advice-leaving young people institutionalised, families torn apart and children left at risk.

It is important to remember that the people being failed by the Abbott government's policies and funding decisions are not just those who are suspected of or charged with wrongdoing; they include the most vulnerable and innocent among us such as children experiencing poverty or neglect and women experiencing domestic or sexual violence. They also include the most ordinary among us-families who might be seeking to clarify the guardianship arrangements for elderly parents, divorcing couples seeking to finalise property settlements or neighbourhoods seeking to protect their local environment from harm or degradation.

This slide towards an unequal and inaccessible system of justice is not just something the Australian Greens have noticed. It has long been identified by the legal profession and the community service sector, and has also been substantiated more recently by evidence presented by PricewaterhouseCoopers and, most recently, by the Productivity Commission's 2014 detailed inquiry into access to justice.

In its report, released in December 2014 by the government under the cover of a big news day, the Productivity Commission made it clear that cuts to legal assistance are not just unfair but also actually a false economy, because the costs of unresolved legal problems are then shifted to other areas of government spending, like health care, housing and child protection.

In its extensive report, the Productivity Commission emphasised what the legal community has long known: the funding structure of the Australian legal assistance sector, commonly known as legal aid and community legal services, is complex and in urgent need of reform. Further, the amount of funding for the legal assistance sector is woefully inadequate, leaving tens of thousands of Australians now unable to access the legal advice they need to resolve their disputes or to assert or defend their legal rights.

The Productivity Commission recommended that government funding for legal assistance services should be immediately increased by around $200 million to better align the means test, maintain existing front-line services and broaden the scope of legal assistance services-this is the Productivity Commission. The Abbott government has ignored this urgent plea and has failed to respond to this or any of the other recommendations in the Productivity Commission's report.

The legal assistance community has told me that, unless emergency funding is provided and the savage funding cuts announced in the last budget are reversed, critical legal services will soon be taken away from the Australians who need them most. For example, we will see a further loss of key services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including the axing of the Custody Notification Service advice line, which has prevented Aboriginal deaths in policy custody in New South Wales and the ACT since it began.

We will see the loss of vital legal staff from women's legal centres across the country. These are centres that provide critical legal services to women, including women fleeing domestic violence. We will see the axing of the Consumer Action Law Centre's telephone advice service. We will see the closing down of specialist family law centres in regional centres, affecting child protection duty services and youth justice services. And we will see the loss of critical staff in remote and regional specialist family violence services, including services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The short-sightedness of these cuts is heartbreaking, especially at a time when the nation is ready and willing to look for practical solutions to ending the epidemic of family violence in Australia-which everybody has been talking about-and also finally address the shameful overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our criminal justice system.

These cuts are also costly for the taxpayer. As the Productivity Commission's report shows, just like a sick person who is denied ready access to health care, an unresolved and critical legal need can infect and devastate families and communities, and lead to expensive, complex problems for the taxpayer to ultimately pay to resolve down the line.

The Productivity Commission also recommends reversing the Abbott government's attempts to gag community legal centres and legal assistance providers from engaging in law reform or policy related activities. This recommendation reflects what I have been pointing out for months: the Abbott government's backward-looking funding cuts have silenced the voices of those who are best placed to highlight where improvements need to be made in the law and to help make the changes that will, ultimately, save time, money and heartache later down the line.

The Australian Greens believe that access to justice is the right of all Australians. It is also an essential precondition for freedom. A free person is someone who has the capacity-that is, someone who has access to relevant resources, understands their legal rights and can pursue their own goals. It is regretful therefore to observe that the Commonwealth Attorney-General-with his fastidious focus on what he calls 'freedoms'-has presided over policies that deny those most at risk of having their freedoms undermined or restricted from understanding or exercising their legal rights.

While the outlook for Australia's justice system may seem bleak when viewed against the backdrop of neglect and contempt by the Abbott government, as a lawyer myself, I remain optimistic that we can achieve a smarter, fairer justice system that is accessible to anyone who has a serious legal problem or who requires the protection of the law. The starting point is for the government to take immediate steps to respond to the Productivity Commission's report and to provide the $200 million additional emergency funding it prescribes. The next critical step is for the government to reverse the funding cuts made to front-line legal service providers during its 2013-2014 budget.

The longer term vision for the justice system that the Australian Greens think Australia deserves would make sure that all of us understand our own legal rights and those of our fellow Australians. This will create more autonomy, more freedom and more cohesion as we understand the rights of each other. We can also ensure that everyone can access quality legal advice early and for as long as they need it, regardless of the size of their wallet. This long-term vision would enshrine and protect procedural fairness, natural justice and judicial independence-all of those elements which are essential for the rule of law. It would clearly define the limits of government power and make sure that important government decisions are subject to meaningful merits review. It would empower our courts and tribunals to resolve disputes early, quickly and fairly. It would put the rights and wellbeing of children at the centre of all relevant legal processes. It would demand an end to the egregious rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration by including justice targets in the Close the Gap program. It would incorporate justice reinvestment and restorative justice principles that have been proven to reduce crime and turn lives around. And it would celebrate those lawyers and human rights advocates who strive for justice for their clients and for the broader community, often with very little financial reward or public recognition. They are true heroes.

These are the goals I will be reflecting upon when I participate in the celebrations planned this year for the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. It is that seminal legal document that has encapsulated the notion of the rule of law and has operated as a shield against tyranny, abuse of power and oppression since 1215-and when Australia is examined by the UN Human Rights Council later this year. These are the goals that will be jeopardised unless the Abbott government heeds the recommendations of the Productivity Commission and restores critical funding to legal services now.


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