Democracy requires a robust and meaningfully accessible rule of law framework, without which the rights and liberties enjoyed by all Australians would be made vulnerable.
Our democratic society is based on the premise that all Australians are equal before the law. Legal aid commissions play a defining role in achieving that equality. They strive to ensure that all citizens, including those who can't afford to pay, have access to legal services and to the law.
The Government will provide $194.8 million in funding to the states for legal aid commissions under the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services. This amount is an increase of $4 million from last year, and forward estimates show this funding increasing by a total of $11 million over the next three years. A key objective of the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services is to promote a more integrated approach to service delivery. Jurisdictional forums set up under the Agreement within each state and territory consider opportunities for improved coordination and targeting of legal services which will include improving services in areas of need in regional Australia..
$10.4 million will also be provided to legal aid commissions under the Attorney-General's Department Program 1.3: Justice Services. This represents a significant increase from the $3.3 million originally allocated in the 2010–11 Budget. However, that amount was revised up to $20.5 million when $17.6 million was provided in the 2010–11 Additional Estimates specifically for legal aid to combat people smuggling. Further to this amount, the Government will provide an additional $11.3 million over the next two years to reimburse costs incurred by state and territory legal aid commissions in providing legal assistance in costly Commonwealth law-related cases. The funding will be made available through the Expensive Commonwealth Criminal Cases Fund (ECCCF).
The change in funding to legal aid commissions reflects 'a change in the annual funding profile for additional funding for legal aid for people smuggling, national security and drug-related cases'. Further details on funding to legal aid commissions, specifically in relation to people smuggling cases, can be found in the 'Responding to Boat Arrivals' brief in this Budget Review.
The Government also identified $10.4 million in savings over four years from financial assistance schemes for Commonwealth legal matters though streamlining administration and legislative change leading to further rationalisation.
To improve access to legal assistance for people in regional Australia, the Government will provide $4 million over four years through the use of the National Broadband Network (NBN). Grants will be made available to legal assistance providers to support NBN based delivery of legal services, and to attract and retain staff in particular regional areas.
In 2011–12, funding for community legal services and indigenous legal aid will continue. Under the Attorney-General's Department Program 1.3: Justice Services, $34 325 million ($31 483 million in 2010–11) in payments will be made for the provision of community legal services across Australia. Under the Attorney-General's Department Program 1.5: Indigenous Law and Justice, Commonwealth funding for Indigenous Legal Aid and Policy Reform will be $65 466 million ($65 721 million in 2010–11) and the Government has committed $19 833 million ($19 500 million in 2010–11) for payments for the provision of Family Violence Prevention Legal Services for Indigenous Australia.
The Budget allocation for legal aid has attracted comment from the Law Council of Australia (LCA), which described a financial crisis facing the legal assistance sector 'due to 14 years of underfunding by the Commonwealth Government'. The LCA has lobbied the Government to contribute at least 50 per cent of the total Commonwealth/state funding for legal aid commissions. Commonwealth funding has been less than 50 per cent of combined Commonwealth/state funding for legal aid commissions since 1999–00. In 2010–11 Commonwealth funding was 42 per cent of combined Commonwealth/state funding. In 1996–97 this figure was 63 per cent.
In December 2009, the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs recommended an evidence-based review of funding for legal aid commissions involving federal, state and territory governments and relevant stakeholders.