A legal aid framework exists to allow all Australians an elementary right of access to legal advice and services, so as to satisfy the premise that all are equal before the law.
The mission of legal aid commissions is to provide access to justice to marginalised and economically disadvantaged Australians.
The Government provides funding to the states and territories for legal aid commissions through the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services. In 2012–13 the Government will provide $198.1 million dollars under the Agreement, an increase of $3.3 million from last year. Included in this amount is $9.9 million for the Expensive Commonwealth Criminal Cases Fund (ECCCF). The forward estimates indicate that the total funding to be provided under the Agreement will increase by $11.2 million between 2012–13 and 2015–16.
Legal Aid Commissions will also directly receive $14.5 million in 2012–13 under the Attorney-General’s Department Program 1.3: Justice Services. This represents a significant increase of $4.7 million when compared to last year’s revised Budget figures. The amount is estimated to reduce to around $3.8 million in 2014–15 and 2015–16, which will mean a return to the levels of legal aid funding under the Justice Services program that were forecast in the 2010–11 Budget for the forward years, prior to revision in the 2011–12 Budget to include ‘additional funding for legal aid for people smuggling, national security and drug-related cases’. The Budget papers do not explain the basis on which expenditure on legal aid under the Justice Services program is expected to decrease.
The Government has also continued the National Broadband Network (NBN) Regional Legal Assistance Program, which provides grants to increase legal assistance delivery to remote areas. This was originally announced in the 2011–12 budget to be funded with $4 million over four years.
Funding for community legal services and indigenous legal aid will continue at existing levels in 2012–13. The Attorney-General's Department Program 1.3: Justice Services administers $36.2 million ($35 million in 2011–12) for the provision of community legal services across Australia. Under the Attorney-General's Department Program 1.5: Indigenous Law and Justice, the amount of Commonwealth funding for indigenous legal aid and policy reform has remained steady, at $65.5 million, from 2011–12 to 2012–13.
The Law Council of Australia (LCA) commented on the legal assistance Budget allocation in 2011–2012, describing a monetary disaster facing the legal assistance segment ‘due to 14 years of underfunding by the Commonwealth Government'. The LCA has again expressed its disappointment with the 2012–13 Budget allocation, stating that ‘the underfunding of the legal assistance sector cannot continue—the structural re-adjustment must commence immediately so the Commonwealth’s contribution to legal aid returns to at least 50 per cent’. Commonwealth funding levels have been below 50 per cent of combined Commonwealth/state funding for legal aid commissions since 1999–00. The LCA reiterated that it will continue to lobby the Government to ensure increased provision of legal aid.
. The Attorney-General established an Expensive Commonwealth Criminal Cases Fund in December 1999. The fund is intended to ensure that the cost of providing assistance in a serious Commonwealth criminal matter does not impact on the capacity of legal aid commissions to maintain assistance in others. Australian Government, Budget Measures: Ministerial Statements, Stronger Regions, Stronger Nation – Attorney-General, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2012, p. 46 viewed 9 May 2012.
. The Portfolio budget statements 2010–11: budget related paper no. 1.2: Attorney-General's Portfolio forward estimates stated that expenditure on legal aid to Legal Aid Commissions under Departmental program 1.3: Justice services would be around $3.5 million for the 2010–11 financial year and for the corresponding forward years. However these figures were revised in the 2011–12 Budget to include ‘additional funding for legal aid for people smuggling, national security and drug-related cases’. The revised figures were: $20.5 million in 2010–11; $10.4 million in 2011–12; $10.6 million in 2012–13; $3.7 million in 2013–14; and $3.8 million in 2014–15. Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2010–11: budget related paper no. 1.2: Attorney-General's Portfolio, p. 33, viewed 9 May 2012; Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2011–12: budget related paper no. 1.2: Attorney-General's Portfolio, p. 31, viewed 9 May 2012; Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Attorney-General’s portfolio, Additional Estimates, 22 February 2011, pp 105–106, viewed 10 May 2012,
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