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Australian legal aid at risk of turning people away unless $484m extra funding provided

Almost half a billion dollars in extra funding is needed each year to meet demand for legal assistance in Australia, a new report commissioned by National Legal Aid has found.

The Justice on the Brink report found $484m in funding was needed to prevent the threat of “supply failure”, expand the availability of family and civil law services, provide greater access under the means test and increase fees for private lawyers.

It found commonwealth funding for legal aid had fallen 3% per capita over the past decade, but demand for employment, housing, goods and related services had increased.

“On the supply side, we find that chronic underfunding and underpayment is eroding the supply of practitioners willing to undertake Legal Aid work, threatening the viability of services across the country,” the Impact Economics and Policy report found.

“Legal Aid lawyers report the pressures of high caseloads, against a backdrop of low and falling wages compared to their counterparts in the commercial sector.

“As one lawyer working in Indigenous family law put it to us, ‘Societies talk about how important this ‘access to justice’ is, and our justice net is completely overwhelmed.’ This erodes the number, quality, and experience of private practitioners delivering legal assistance.”

There was also an increasing cohort of people who were not eligible for legal aid, but were in need of support.

“Current means test settings for Legal Aid mean that public assistance is available only to the poorest in our community.

“Between the very poor and the rich, a large cohort does not have functional access to the legal system they rely on and pay for through their taxes.

“As one Legal Aid lawyer put it in an interview for this report, ‘Most people, even those who are on six figure incomes, don’t carry around the sort of cash that they need to put up front to run litigation’.”

The report found that while the Productivity Commission estimated in a 2014 report that the shortfall was $200m, the same methodology had been used to reach the new figure.

It estimated that $317m was needed to reach the recommended share of family and civil grants; $98m to reach the recommended means testing coverage; and $69m to protect the sector from the “immediate threat of supply failure”.

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It also found that missing data made it difficult to assess the scale of issues.

“A sorely missing piece of service data is active demand for services, or how much legal assistance is being requested by the public,” it found.

“Legal assistance providers rarely collect this data. Without this information we know little about the cohort of people who just miss out on legal assistance.”

The attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, has previously signalled his strong support for the sector while describing it as “needing repair work”.

He has flagged he was consulting widely ahead of a new national funding agreement being announced, with the current agreement set to expire next year.

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