The Importance of Community Legal Centres


Peter Khalil: It would be difficult to find anyone in this place who does not consider that it is a basic tenet of our democracy that justice is a fundamental right. When I reflect on this, I am reminded of a very good quote by the Right Hon. Beverly McLachlin, a former Chief Justice of Canada. She said:

The most advanced justice system in the world is a failure if it does not provide justice to the people it is meant to serve. Access to justice therefore is critical.

Access to justice—that has got to be taken to translate both into outcomes that are substantive and a process that serves the principle, allowing ordinary people to navigate the justice system. Anyone who has sought the counsel or representation of a legal practitioner knows the significant costs of high-quality legal advice. I certainly do not argue that those talented members of the legal profession do not earn their fees through the work that they do and the scrupulous legal work that they do in discharging their duties for their clients in the court.

But, clearly, the proper application of justice comes at a cost to all parties, and it runs contrary to the vital principles of our democracy that any one person may be priced out of access to justice or that wealth inequality may lead to any miscarriage of justice. In most Australian jurisdictions, community legal centres are one resource that can be accessed by those who are experiencing economic, social or cultural disadvantage and those whose circumstances have been adversely affected by their legal problems.

Community legal centres are not-for-profit organisations that provide free legal advice, casework and information. Some community legal centres also advocate for law reform or conduct test cases where laws are perceived to operate unfairly or are unclear. In my home state of Victoria, over 100,000 people per year access the services of community legal centres and, across the nation, community legal centres service over 215,000 people each year.

Community legal centres are resourced through a variety of methods. They include philanthropic donations, pro bono work undertaken by members of the legal profession, and the energy and expertise of volunteers; however, they are particularly reliant on funding provided by state, federal and local governments.

The current federal government has cut $24 million from community legal centres, $15 million from legal aid commissions, and $13 million from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services. While I note they have added some funding in December last year, it simply does not go far enough to restoring the funding that was ripped away from those essential services as part of the 2014 budget.

These cuts have been made in the context of an already scarcely funded community legal space—160,000 people are turned away from community legal centres each year due to lack of capacity to take on their cases. The burden of these cuts will make it incredibly difficult to maintain the high quality of legal services that so many vulnerable people rely upon.

I note that no consultation with the community legal sector has occurred before the cuts were made. I met with the Women’s Legal Service Victoria recently and visited them and they too are suffering under those cuts with something like 400 to 600 women losing access to those services each year.