House of Representatives Speech- Legal Aid 2014

Before the last election, Senator Brandis told The Australian newspaper:

I do regard access to justice not as an aspect of social welfare but as a necessary implication of the rule of law.

This was certainly heady stuff from the senator—high-minded principle. Unfortunately, Attorney-General Brandis has, in government, revealed a scant regard for access to justice and a contemptuous arrogance towards the organisations and hardworking people tasked with delivering it. Access to justice means more than just the formal ability of individuals to avail themselves of the courts. Real access to justice requires that all Australians are properly informed of their legal rights. Real access to justice requires that all Australians are assisted to resolve their disputes before they escalate and become more costly and disruptive to the whole community. Real access to justice requires in the last resort that all Australians have the benefit of legal advice or representation in a court of law.

Before the last election, Senator Brandis told The Australian newspaper:

I do regard access to justice not as an aspect of social welfare but as a necessary implication of the rule of law.

This was certainly heady stuff from the senator—high-minded principle. Unfortunately, Attorney-General Brandis has, in government, revealed a scant regard for access to justice and a contemptuous arrogance towards the organisations and hardworking people tasked with delivering it. Access to justice means more than just the formal ability of individuals to avail themselves of the courts. Real access to justice requires that all Australians are properly informed of their legal rights. Real access to justice requires that all Australians are assisted to resolve their disputes before they escalate and become more costly and disruptive to the whole community. Real access to justice requires in the last resort that all Australians have the benefit of legal advice or representation in a court of law.

In this sense, the work of Legal Aid Commissions, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, ATSILSs, and of Community Legal Centres, CLCs, is absolutely vital in ensuring that there is access to justice for all Australians. In a very practical sense, these institutions underpin the rule of law, a principle which the Commonwealth Attorney-General should be working to uphold. When I served as Attorney-General in the last Labor government, I argued passionately for the role played by Legal Aid, ATSILSs and CLCs in guaranteeing that all Australians have access to justice. What is more, the Labor government did not just argue for improved access to justice; we increased funding to these organisations so they could better deliver legal assistance to the most needy in society.

By contrast, and despite his rhetoric of concern for justice, the current Attorney-General has attacked those who work so that all Australians can enjoy the rule of law. Indeed, in his tenure as Attorney-General he has to date done little else. On taking office, the Abbott government and this Attorney-General ripped some $42 million dollars out of the legal assistance sector. This cold-hearted decision undermines access to justice for those who need it most. The Attorney-General talks big on the equal protection of the law, but he cut funding to ATSILSs at a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 25 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous children. When questioned at Senate estimates, Senator Brandis could not even name an ATSILS organisation that he had visited, much less consulted with on the impacts of his cuts.

ATSILSs are not the only community legal services to suffer under the Abbott government's disdain for justice. In December, the Attorney-General advised all Environmental Defenders Offices, EDOs, that they would not be receiving the additional $2.5 million each year that was already committed and contracted for by the Labor Government. EDOs advise and act for individuals, community groups and conservation groups seeking to protect the environment in the public interest. The Labor government delivered the largest increase in funding ever received by these organisations. The Abbott government ripped their funding away, citing a supposed change of policy which would ostensibly prioritise front-line services. Perhaps Senator Brandis does not think that the protection of endangered species, the prevention of pollution, proper urban planning, land use issues affecting our farmers or the protection of our nation's natural assets, which form the basis of much of our tourism industry, are frontline issues. He recently had the audacity to question whether some of this work was 'worthy'.

For all his righteous bluster, the Attorney-General is to be judged on his actions. Whatever he says about the rule of law, he has shown he will not support the community legal organisations which, every day, across Australia, perform the difficult and often unglamorous but vital work of making sure that everyone in our society can access justice. Perhaps if Senator Brandis spent less time requisitioning taxpayer funded bookshelves to house his taxpayer funded personal library and more time visiting ATSILS and other community legal centres, he would understand just how much damage his cuts are doing to access to justice in our nation.