A lack of coordination between the various legal aid schemes across Australia is resulting in significant unmet need for legal assistance.
This is the conclusion drawn by Associate Professor Stephen Tomsen from the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle, in his recent publication Lawyers in Conflict: Australian Lawyers and Legal Aid.
The book is the first comprehensive account of the Australian legal aid system and is based on extensive research in public archives and interviews with key players involved in the legal aid debate.
Associate Professor Tomsen said his research showed that over the past 30 years the stated aim of legal aid had shifted from a long-term goal of legal equality for all, to the overriding goal of cost efficiency.
"The establishment of the Australian Legal Aid Office (ALAO) by the Commonwealth Government in 1973, and the creation of state-based legal commissions in the late 1970s and early 80s, resulted in an expansion of direct services and a rapid enlargement of the public legal aid sector.
"A shift in government policy direction starting in the mid-1980s, and continuing to today, has seen a more modest approach to legal aid, including a reduction in funding for legal aid services.
"In addition, the long-standing Commonwealth-State funding agreements were terminated in 1996, with the Commonwealth becoming a purchaser of legal aid services, rather than a provider.
"As a result, a person in need of legal help is now faced with a choice between legal aid commissions, legal centres, law society assistance and pro-bono schemes, all with different eligibility criteria and covering different areas of work.
"Assistance is not easily available to ordinary working-class people, but rather to the most impoverished and disadvantaged who fall within tight tests and guidelines, resulting in unmet need in a variety of areas."
Lawyers in Conflict: Australian Lawyers and Legal Aid details the significant developments in legal aid policy and the system during the period 1972 to the present. It also examines the specific influence of the legal profession within the broader framework of debates about legal equality.
Contact Professor Stephen Tomsen via Blythe Hamilton, Media and Public Relations.