Legal aid forms a vital part of Tasmania's judicial system and Australian democracy at large.
Those deemed not wealthy enough to afford a lawyer to represent them in court, should be provided some assistance. However, Law Society of Tasmania president Evan Hughes says the system is broken due to the federal government's undervaluation, as alluded to in the Department of Justice Evaluation of the Legal Assistance Sector Report. The report reveals a "funding cliff" for the Legal Aid Commission and community legal centres in Tasmania following Commonwealth cuts in 2014-15 as a result of the National Partnership Agreement.
The state government will this financial year prop up the system to the tune of $1.3 million, a move Mr Hughes said saves 40 per cent of services from being cut. Hardly a sustainable model and the Morrison government must provide more support when the NPA comes up for renewal next year.
The state government budgeted a record $8.9 million in 2019-20 for legal assistance, but more federally needs to be done to ensure disadvantaged Tasmanians gain access.
Bass Liberal MHR Bridget Archer was elected largely due to swings away from Labor in Launceston's working-class suburbs so it should be incumbent on her to ensure the federal government takes meaningful action during renegotions. Law professionals are not charity workers. They study for years and deserve to be paid appropriately. They should not have to increase their generous pro-bono work to keep a vital service intact.
Additional funding and a long-term strategic and business model is needed. An estimated $310 million annually is needed nationally to maintain and grown services.
The government has budgeted $1.2 billion over three years from July 1 2020 but fell short of saying on what and where it will be spent. People shouldn't be forced to represent themselves in court which only adds to the growing court backlog as Magistrates are often forced to talk them through the legal process and jargon.
It's staggering that 14 per cent of Australians live below the poverty line, yet just 8 per cent qualify for legal assistance.
Something must change.