Basic legal rights for all.
Reading that sentence, you would think that basic legal rights are a given in any modern-day, first-world society.
However, they are not. Whilst we all agree that access to justice is a fundamental right for all members of our society, it is often not the case.
One of the key issues we see in Queensland is the constraint on services — not enough community legal centres, not enough staff in these centres, not enough time in each day to help everyone.
A key priority for me this year, as a solicitor and the president of Queensland Law Society, has been to try to remedy this problem. I have lobbied for the duration of my term thus far for both the state and federal governments to step up and increase funding to the legal assistance sector.
And, today, we had a win.
No, it wasn’t an increase on funding as such, but was a reinstatement of funding that had been announced as being cut ahead of this year’s Federal Budget.
Somehow, the Federal Government managed to find ‘new money’ to ensure that funding would not be cut to these essential legal services. For that, I say thank you. Thank you to the Federal Attorney-General the Honourable George Brandis QC, thank you to Community Legal Centres Queensland Director James Farrell, thank you to the team at the National Association of Community Legal Centres, and most importantly, thank you to our profession.
Without the hard work that Queensland solicitors undertake in our community legal centres day-in-and-day out, we would not have been able to resecure this funding. Your dedication is a testament to our truly noble profession.
Not to mention, the unbelievable amount of pro bono work Queensland solicitors from the private sector also conduct each and every year, must be applauded. Last year, you contributed over 290,000 hours of free legal assistance to assist the vulnerable in your communities.
However, it is not all sunshine and rainbows today and more must be done. I spoke at the press conference this morning following the announcement and reiterated that whilst we have avoided going over the fiscal cliff, we are still teetering on the edge.
Each year, the demand for legal assistance grows in our communities, and so must this funding.
Yes, the reinstatement of funding means that the doors stay open and the vulnerable members of our community avoid the revolving door of justice, but it will not expand services.
We have a society full of people with great need, under great pressure and often with little support from relatives or government organisations.
When one is not eligible for Legal Aid assistance, they go to their community legal centre for help. This is the last resort for many of them. I am concerned about where they go from there if they are turned away.
During the last year alone, community legal centres across the country have turned away more than 160,000 disadvantaged and vulnerable people due to reductions in capacity and staff numbers.
And what happens to these people? The revolving door of justice? For example, a fine that cannot be paid blows up even higher and then they end up with more issues including housing, homelessness or even jail.
Are they even more disadvantaged from having to self-represent? Self-representation also brings bigger problems with it, such as a bottleneck in our court system and prison system as those who cannot represent themselves adequately fail to plead their case correctly.
There are so many issues that can arise from denying people the fundamental right of access to justice.
As one who upholds the rule of law, and as a guardian of the vulnerable that go through our justice system, I firmly believe that it is a fundamental component of the rule of law that access to justice be available to all.
I put to you that basic social justice for our population is an integral part of our social infrastructure.
To that end, I am pleased to see funding reinstated but I do stress that the needs of our vulnerable are growing — as are the numbers of those requiring help — and so we must see the funding grow also.
I, and my team at the Society, are always ready to assist the government in any way that we can to ensure the vulnerable in our community continue to have access to basic legal assistance.