Queensland Law Society

Queenslanders below the poverty line denied access to justice

A serious lack of government funding combined with harsh means-testing for the state’s most cash-strapped and vulnerable are the main barriers for Queenslanders gaining proper access to justice.

Queensland Law Society’s 2017 Access to Justice Scorecard found 80 percent of those surveyed  believed “inadequate funding of legal aid assistance services [w]as (the greatest)…barrier to allowing access to justice.’’

QLS president Ken Taylor said that access to justice is a basic right for Queenslanders and these shortcomings need addressing as a matter of urgency.

“Many do not realise the state of access to justice in Queensland,” he said.

“For instance our community legal centres, who help the most vulnerable in the community, are forced to turn away almost 170,000 disadvantaged and vulnerable people each year due to a lack of capacity and staff numbers.

“Out of this enormous number, only 68 percent* are able to be given an appropriately accessible and affordable referral.

“Many of those seeking assistance from a community legal centre will have already looked for help from Legal Aid Queensland, but means-testing provisions result in families that earn more than a meagre $43,100-a-year being denied access to fully-funded aid.”

Mr Taylor explained that the poverty line in Australia in 2016 equated to an after-tax income of less than $895.22** a week for a couple with two children.

“According to the Legal Aid Queensland’s means-test provision, a couple with two children who earn significantly less than the poverty line at $722.81*** per week will be denied fully-funded legal assistance. The situation for single parent families is likely to be even more dire.

“Just think about those vulnerable Queenslanders living below the poverty line, who could be turned away from accessing justice through Legal Aid, and then also unable to access support from an under-funded community legal centre.”

Others who would be denied fully-funded legal assistance included a single income couple with two children earning in excess of $48,100 per year and a single parent with two children earning more than $37,960.

Mr Taylor said there had been a continued growth in Queensland’s ‘missing middle’ of financially vulnerable people unable to obtain proper assistance to legal advice and, ultimately, access to justice.

The survey, conducted by QLS’ Access to Justice and Pro Bono Law Committee, also found Queensland lawyers provided almost 300,000 hours of free legal advice each year – equating to an average of one-and-a-half weeks of volunteered service by every Queensland solicitor.

While most lawyers believed affordability of legal services was a barrier to justice access, the profession identified solutions to reduce client costs such as ‘alternative fee structures’ like discrete task services or limited scope retainers and the expansion of online resources and file management to reduce client costs.

Mr Taylor said access to justice services and having properly resourced courts had long been an area of concern to the Society and legal profession because of the significant impact it has on the wider community.

“A steady erosion of government funding over a generation has produced a situation in which hundreds of thousands of Queenslanders are being denied legal representation when they are at their most vulnerable and in desperate need of it,’’ he said.

“QLS will continue to advocate for improvements to access to justice, particularly the solutions identified through the survey that warrant consideration by our governments and key stakeholders.”

ENDS
 
For further information, please contact Tony Keim on 07 3842 5835, mobile 0488 433 884 or via email, media@qls.com.au

* National census of community legal centres (CLCs) 2016: Clients, services and work http://www.naclc.org.au/resources/NACLC%20Census%202016%20National%20Report%20-%20FINAL.pdf

** https://www.acoss.org.au/poverty/

*** http://www.legalaid.qld.gov.au/About-us/Policies-and-procedures/Grants-Policy-Manual/The-Means-Test . Figure based on a double income couple with two children earning more than $43,160.