Vulnerable Tasmanians are representing themselves in court in increasing numbers and lawyers are "walking away" from the legal aid sector as a result of a shortfall in federal funding, the Law Society of Tasmania says.
Legal practitioners are said to be "propping up" the sector by acting in a pro-bono capacity for disadvantaged clients who might not otherwise be able to qualify for legal aid due to the shortfall.
In 2015, the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services (NPA) was implemented nationwide, setting a framework for the distribution of funding to legal aid services, community legal centres (CLCs) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services (ATSILS) across the country.
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It saw Tasmania suffer the biggest drop (-7.29 per cent) in funding of all states and territories over the 2014-15 and 2015-16 financial years.
All other jurisdictions bar South Australia received a net increase in funding.
And so the Tasmanian government has been left to clean up the mess, making up the shortfall this financial year with $1.3 million.
From July 1, 2020, the federal government will increase baseline legal assistance funding to $369.9 million per year over three years.
But Law Society of Tasmania president Evan Hughes said he wanted to see how the funding was going to be "structured" to "make sure that it's going to be a real increase and that it's going to do what it needs to do".
"The legal assistance sector in Tasmania is underfunded by at least one-third of what it should be funded," he said.
"[This is] a real crisis for some of the most disadvantaged in our community in need of legal assistance.
"Because of the [NPA] funding shortfall, many Tasmanians do not qualify for legal aid and are forced to represent themselves in legal proceedings [which] consumes considerable police, court and [Department of Public Prosecutions] resources to manage unrepresented people ... [resulting] in court delays and case backlogs."
Mr Hughes said this created "additional stress and uncertainty for witnesses, defendants and victims".
"Many legal practitioners have been propping up the sector through pro-bono work and working for legal aid rates that have barely changed in over a decade," he said.
He called on the federal government to commit additional funding to the state's legal assistance sector before the National Mechanism for Commonwealth Legal Assistance Funding is introduced on July 1, 2020.
Law Council of Australia president Arthur Moses SC said legal assistance funding in Australia had reached "crisis point".
"We should not have two classes of citizens in this country, those who can afford justice and those who cannot, yet this is the unfortunate reality," he said.
A spokesperson for acting federal Attorney-General Greg Hunt said the government was offering "ongoing support" for the legal assistance sector.
Many legal practitioners have been propping up the sector through pro-bono work and working for legal aid rates that have barely changed in over a decade.Evan Hughes, Law Society of Tasmania president
"The National Mechanism will be a unified administrative mechanism that provides quarantined funding to legal aid commissions, CLCs and ATSILS via the states and territories," the spokesperson said.
"Individual states and territories determine the allocation of funding to services within their jurisdiction which, in turn, determine the allocation of resources to individual matters."
Bass Liberal MHR Bridget Archer said she believed legal assistance was "something that needs to be available across the board to people" and that she would be "happy" to talk to the Law Council about the issue.