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Transcript of CEO’s speech for Launch of Legal Australia-Wide Survey

First I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet, the Gadigal Clan of the Eora Nation and I pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.

I acknowledge the Attorney General, the Honourable Greg Smith, the Honourable Paul Stein, Chair of the Board of the Law and Justice Foundation, the Honourable Geoff Provest, MP, Parliamentary Secretary for Police and Emergency Services, the Honourable David Shoebridge, MLC, Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Justin Dowd, President of the Law Society of NSW, members of our legal assistance service delivery partners, ladies and gentlemen. I thank you all for being here today for this very important launch.

Can I begin by congratulating the Law and Justice Foundation on their publication of the Legal Need in NSW Survey, which is one of a series of nine reports on legal need in Australia as a whole and in each State and Territory.

This LAW Australia wide Survey is a monumental study, involving over 20,000 interviews across Australia and over 4,000 in NSW alone and is the largest survey of legal need undertaken anywhere in the world.

National Legal Aid and Legal Aid NSW are proud to have been a partner and co-funder in this project with the Foundation and we see the result of this work as being critical to discussing access to justice in this country and this State for many years to come.

In this very difficult economic time, which seems to have been with us forever, it is absolutely critical that any bid for additional resources be accompanied by empirical evidence to substantiate need. This is what the survey does, both at a State level and nationally. I will come back to the basis of this claim shortly.

The legal assistance sector has long been used to "doing more with less" or "making the dollar go further". We have always faced this challenge but never more so than since the mid-90's when the then Federal Government slashed its legal assistance spending. The resulting gross underfunding by the Commonwealth has continued, notwithstanding the considerable efforts of the former Attorney, The Hon Robert McClelland to inject much needed funding into the sector.

The demands on the Public Purpose Fund in NSW and the economic circumstances the Trustees of the Fund have to contend with also present a challenge to existing funding for the sector, particularly Legal Aid NSW.

The fall-out from the GFC, at both State and Federal levels continues and all Governments have a difficult job to prioritise their scarce resources across the many important, competing demands from the community. What this survey does is to clearly establish, the level of unmet demand in the general community and to demonstrate the effects on peoples lives of not dealing with these problems.

Not addressing legal issues can and usually does snowball, often resulting in severe consequences, sometimes even gaol.

Turning now to the survey findings, as I have said the LAW Survey interviewed 20,716 people across all States and Territories and over 4,000 in NSW.

The NSW LAW Survey reports that legal problems in NSW are wide-spread: the survey estimates that 2,825,000 people aged over 15 (or approaching 50% of the State's population) will experience a legal problem over a twelve month period with 23% experiencing three or more legal problems in the same period.

The most common legal problems reported included consumer (21%), crime (14%), housing (13%) and government (11%).

Importantly, the LAW Survey shows that a small group of people experience severe and multiple legal problems: 9% of respondents experienced about two thirds of the legal problems (66%), including the most severe legal problems.

People with a disability stood out in the survey as the disadvantaged group that had higher prevalence of legal problems. Being indigenous, unemployed, a single parent, living in disadvantaged housing and being on Centrelink payments were also the strongest predictors of the prevalence of legal problems.

Young people from 15 to 24 years experienced peaks in crime, accidents and personal injury problems, rented housing problems, and rights-based legal problems. Credit and debt legal problems and family law problems were more prevalent for 25-34 year olds.

The LAW Survey also shows the impact of legal problems on the health, social and economic life of Australians. Income loss or financial strain was associated with 29% of legal problems, stress-related illness with 21% of problems, physical ill-health with 20% of problems and relationship breakdown with 10% of problems.

A key finding of the LAW Survey is how Australians respond to legal problems. Respondents sought advice for 50% of their legal problems, handled 30% of their legal problems without advice and took no action for 19% of their legal problems for reasons associated with, for example, stress, time or cost.

Non-legal workers are routinely the only points of contact for many people with legal problems. In NSW a legal adviser was consulted for only one third of the cases where respondents sought advice from a professional.

This survey, indeed all of the surveys across the country, present challenges for the legal assistance sector, the legal profession, the justice system, Governments and our community. We must use the survey results to refine our services and work better together.

We now know the size of the problem facing our community and the effects of doing nothing when faced with legal difficulties. Our adversarial system of justice is under challenge if we cannot find the means to give people in need appropriate access to justice.

In legal aid organisations we are experiencing rising demands for our services, particularly in Civil Law. Our means tests are getting meaner and legal aid is becoming more and more welfarised. We are seeing a growing "justice gap" where more and more people are not qualifying for legal assistance, or legal assistance beyond advice and minor assistance.

It is my view that we need a new paradigm for providing access to justice. The legal assistance sector with the assistance of the private legal profession has been very innovative in adapting to reduced funding levels. All of the legal assistance sector and for present purposes I include the private legal profession in this description, both as service delivery partners and as providers of extensive pro bono services, work very well together through vehicles such as NLAF and PILCH but there are limits to how far theses services can stretch.

The development of a new paradigm must be at a national level. State and Territory Governments cannot do this alone. Indeed, as the principal revenue gatherer, the Federal Government has a strong obligation to lead this debate. Whether this debate is through the Standing Council on Law and Justice or through COAG itself, it must occur and begin shortly.

Matters which are relevant in these discussions could include:

  1. Funding – where will it come from and how will it be kept up to date?
  2. Service type – what will be the mix of services funded?
  3. Areas of law – what will be covered? – please no Commonwealth/State divide
  4. Means test – where to set it and how to sustain its effectiveness?
  5. Who will provide the services?
  6. How will regional and remote areas be serviced effectively?
  7. How can we better assist the very disadvantaged who have multiple problems, both legal and other?

This NSW Legal Needs Survey and the National Survey provide a reason to begin the challenging discussion about a new paradigm. The Commonwealth review of the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services can also contribute to this essential discussion. I have great expectations that over the next few years we will have a rational and sensible debate and discussion about these important issues and begin the work of developing this new paradigm.