House of Representatives Speech- Legal Assistance Services

Over the last year, I have spoken often about the importance of legal assistance services in ensuring access to justice. It is well recognised that the Attorney-General has a special responsibility to uphold the rule of law. Sir Anthony Mason has said that it is 'a responsibility of the first importance' and a responsibility an Attorney-General is obliged to uphold, even against his own colleagues. It is often said, for instance, that an Attorney-General should speak out in defence of the judiciary. Certainly that is true, but the rule of law goes beyond that. As former Federal Court judge the Honourable Kevin Lindgren said, 'The rule of law and a strong independent judiciary are empty ideals if people cannot access the courts.' If the Attorney-General is to truly defend the rule of law, he must foster real access to justice.

Over the last year, I have spoken often about the importance of legal assistance services in ensuring access to justice. It is well recognised that the Attorney-General has a special responsibility to uphold the rule of law. Sir Anthony Mason has said that it is 'a responsibility of the first importance' and a responsibility an Attorney-General is obliged to uphold, even against his own colleagues. It is often said, for instance, that an Attorney-General should speak out in defence of the judiciary. Certainly that is true, but the rule of law goes beyond that. As former Federal Court judge the Honourable Kevin Lindgren said, 'The rule of law and a strong independent judiciary are empty ideals if people cannot access the courts.' If the Attorney-General is to truly defend the rule of law, he must foster real access to justice.

To that end, the Attorney-General has been responsible for four types of Commonwealth funded legal assistance providers: legal aid commissions, community legal centres, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services—ATSILs—and family violence prevention legal services. Sadly, as I have said in this place and across the country in the last 11 months, the current Attorney-General has attacked each of these four vital services. Even before the Abbott government's first budget, in the December Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, Senator Brandis ripped away from Environmental Defenders Offices $10 million in Commonwealth funding that I had provided them as they weathered attacks from conservative state governments. He cut $9.6 million from other CLCs. He slashed more than $13 million from ATSILs but, at the same time, found $2 million to provide support to those opposing native title claims. He cut $6.5 million from Legal Aid and he cut $3.6 million from family violence prevention legal services.

The attacks have continued throughout Senator Brandis's tenure. The budget revealed the government will rip a further $15 million from Legal Aid in 2014-15. The government has taken another $6 million from CLCs in the forward estimates. It has changed the terms of its funding to CLCs in an attempt to prevent them from participating in public debate. Senator Brandis has allowed the FVPLS to be drawn into the remit of the Prime Minister's department, even though, as legal assistance services, they are properly his responsibility as Attorney-General. And so, almost a year after he took office, the current Attorney-General's standout achievement is an attack on access to justice—a value he is supposed to safeguard. Almost a year on, I call on the government to actually do something constructive in legal assistance, to take some concrete steps forward on access to justice. The government has ample opportunity to do so. I recently spoke at the National Association of Community Legal Centres conference in Alice Springs. I noted there that, though these are dark times for legal assistance services, there is some cause for hope.

The last Labor has government left Senator Brandis an emerging body of evidence for the utility and cost-effectiveness of legal assistance services in addressing the vast unmet legal need in Australia and how their delivery might be improved. Part of that body of evidence is the ACIL Allen review of the national partnership agreement, which was quietly published by Allen at the beginning of July without any public announcement or response by the government. This review, which cost the government almost $1 million, deserves serious consideration and a formal response from the government. There is also the highly significant inquiry into access to justice arrangements, conducted by the Productivity Commission, which is now being finalised. I sought the commission of that inquiry because I considered it firmly in the interests of access to justice that we develop some solid economic evidence base for the benefits of legal assistance and some idea of how its provision could be improved.

The Allen review and the Productivity Commission inquiry would give a competent, ambitious Attorney-General much to work with. Taken together, they present a rare opportunity to grapple with the nuance and the detail of ensuring access to justice. Almost one year on, it is not enough for the Commonwealth Attorney-General to have done nothing to advance access to justice—a 'responsibility of first importance'. So far, Senator Brandis has given us nothing but brutal, swingeing cuts to vital services which comprise only 0.14 per cent of total state and federal government expenditure in this country. I call on Senator Brandis to respond to the Allen review and to engage properly with the full breadth of the Productivity Commission inquiry when it gives its final report. We should expect nothing less from an Australian Attorney-General.