Day 2 Saturday 18 March, Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre
President’s opening address
This morning my speech is going to be a little more serious. It’s about CLC funding. The Federal Government are waging a war on the vulnerable and the disadvantaged and that is why I would like to raise an issue that I believe is very important to our profession, and that is the issue of access to justice for the most vulnerable in our community.
As many of you will know, the Federal Government plan to slash $2 million – which is around 30% – of vital community legal services funding for Queenslanders at the end of this month.
We, the QLS have joined together with the Queensland Government, Community Legal Centres Queensland and Centres across Queensland to urge the Federal Government to reverse this decision.
QLS has waged its own war a long and hard campaign against these cuts over many years – and particularly over the last 12 months.
Our CLCs are in a state of crisis and are heading toward extinction due to the federal funding fiscal cliff, their future is now at risk. This means that basic justice, the fundamental human right of all of our Queensland is being denied in particular to tens of thousands of people who are disadvantaged in our community each year.
Many of you will have completed our annual Access to Justice Scorecard survey last year. We have just recently released the report from your responses, finding that one of the four main barriers Queensland legal practitioners recognise for the everyday Queenslanders is the lack of funding for CLCs.
Of course, I congratulate those in our profession who undertake pro bono work every year – that is most, if not all Queensland solicitors – to demonstrate just how much work you do on a pro bono basis
In 2015/16 our profession Queensland solicitors contributed a total of 290,154.4 hours this is an amazing contribution but is no substitute for proper funding.
As wonderful as it is that our profession conduct pro bono work, it is cynical of the federal government to expect that access to justice be provided by you, social infrastructure is the role of the government that is why we pay our taxes.
Thus far, our persistent pleas for more funding have fallen on deaf ears of the federal parliament who are ignoring Queenslanders. CLCs provide critical and vital legal assistance and advice to people excluded from receiving legal aid in cases such as family and domestic violence, housing, employment and social security matters – these are basic human entitlements.
And let’s also consider what will happen when those services start disappearing! We may see a court system clogged up by self-represented litigants, more of our community members in prison because they cannot navigate the justice system on their own, increased homelessness due to the inability to pay fines or defend oneself – these are amongst many of the issues that these vulnerable Queenslanders will face.
We must see every part of the justice system funded – not just one or two cogs in the machine. CLCs represent an integral part in the fabric of a just and equitable society.
In this past year alone community legal centres across Australia have turned away more than 160,000 disadvantaged and vulnerable people due to reductions in capacity and staff numbers to deal with requests for assistance.
And where will these people end up? In the revolving door of our justice system?
As an Accredited Specialist in Succession Law and someone who also practises in Elder Law, I am exceedingly concerned about this because it has a specific and direct impact on our ageing population.
A hidden group of people becoming homeless is emerging with women over 55 often finding CLCs as their last resort for assistance.
With nearly 27,500 of our homeless people over the age of 45, this is an emerging problem. How can the federal government deny basic access to justice for our ageing population?
This is not fair, nor is it sustainable for a just society. I truly believe that it is a fundamental component of the rule of law that access to justice be available to all.
Our immediate past president Mr Potts put it well when he said last year that the highest embodiment of a lawyer’s duty to the administration of justice is to help those in need navigate the legal labyrinth simply because they need us, not because they pay us.
Through their pro bono work, Queensland solicitors strive to help homeless people and those at risk of homelessness, people suffering from mental ill health, young people transitioning from state care to independence, refugees and others who cannot afford legal representation or legal aid.