National Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference
I would like to start by acknowledging the Jagera and Turrbal people, the Traditional Custodians of the land on which you are meeting today, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples attending today.
And I reiterate the Government’s commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full – which will begin with a referendum later this year to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Australian Constitution.
I want to express my thanks to the Australian Pro Bono Centre, the Queensland Law Society and the Law Council of Australia for organising this conference and for the invitation to address you all today.
I would like to acknowledge Gabriela Christian-Hare and Luke Murphy in particular and thank them for their opening remarks.
I would also like to acknowledge the many distinguished members of the legal profession attending the conference.
We gather here today as participants in what has become a two-decade-long tradition of inclusive discussions about contemporary access to justice and pro bono services issues.
I must admit to a feeling of déjà vu, as this is the second time that I have addressed this Conference in the capacity of Attorney-General. Although when I last spoke in 2013 I wouldn’t have anticipated it would be another decade before I was here again! Regardless, I am delighted to once again be here as Attorney-General and to be speaking to people who, like me, have such a deep respect and passion for access to justice and the community legal sector.
As the first National Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference since 2019, this marks a long-awaited reunion of the legal assistance sector after years of disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before I go any further, I want to recognise and praise the remarkable agility of the legal assistance sector in responding to the pandemic.
Working with new technology, under ever-changing conditions, you have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to your clients despite the huge challenge of service delivery throughout the lockdowns and related restrictions.
Ensuring everyone has access to justice is the core function of people in this room. It is also a key priority of the Albanese Government.
In the words of former Attorney-General Robert McClelland, ‘an effective justice system must be accessible in all its parts’.
Access to justice is not only about how legal systems work. It must include a broader commitment to ensuring equal treatment under the law.
It requires acting to address the obstacles that hinder people's engagement with, or understanding of, our legal system, with the ultimate goal of delivering a fair, affordable and accessible justice system for all.
While anyone may find themselves in contact with the legal system for a variety of reasons, research has consistently demonstrated that legal need is far from evenly distributed throughout society.
We all know that specific groups within our community experience significant challenges when trying to access services to resolve their legal issues. The disparities across race, gender and ethnicity in increased incarceration rates and judicial outcomes are well known.
Individuals facing various forms of disadvantage, such as poor health, low income, and limited literacy and education are especially vulnerable. The intersection of poverty and legal issues creates a cycle that perpetuates social exclusion and deepening inequalities.
We know that financial constraints are a significant barrier to many people receiving legal assistance or representation, impeding their ability to access vital resources and opportunities to resolve their legal issues quickly and effectively.
Barriers to justice also have broader societal implications. They perpetuate poverty and exclusion, creating a ripple effect that adversely impacts not only the individuals themselves but also their families and communities.
When people cannot access justice, their ability to assert their rights, protect their interests, and advocate for themselves is compromised, undermining trust in the legal system and eroding the rule of law.
Recognising this, we must prioritise efforts to remove barriers to justice and ensure that all individuals, regardless of their socio-economic status, have equal access to legal remedies and protections.
In this context, everyone delivering legal assistance and pro bono services plays a central role in overcoming these barriers to justice. Your services help to bridge the gap for individuals who cannot afford legal representation, enabling them to receive the support they need to navigate the complexities of the legal system.
By providing free or low-cost assistance, your services help to reduce financial barriers and ensure that justice is not limited only to those who can afford it.
The vital work that this sector does is not lost upon me. As Attorney-General, my focus is on ensuring that the sector is not only adequately resourced, but also that the administrative obligations on the sector are proportionate and reasonable.
Review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership
As many of you are no doubt aware, the current National Legal Assistance Partnership expires on 30 June 2025.
The Government has now commenced an independent review into the Partnership Agreement.
I am very pleased to announce today that, with the agreement of all state and territory Attorneys-General, I have appointed Dr Warren Mundy as the independent reviewer.
Many of you here today will already know Dr Mundy.
Dr Mundy is eminently qualified to lead this review and has a long history with the legal assistance sector, including having served on the Board of a community legal centre.
I am sure all of you would be familiar with at least some of Dr Mundy’s previous work, particularly his role as presiding Commissioner for the Productivity Commission’s 2014 Inquiry into Access to Justice Arrangements.
That very significant report uncovered the extent of unmet legal need in Australia along with qualitative evidence that narrowing the legal assistance gap would be socially and economically beneficial.
The Access to Justice Arrangements report found that providing legal assistance to individuals with civil legal problems can also deliver benefits to the wider community, including:
- Ensuring legal rights are enforced across the community;
- Preventing the escalation of civil disputes, including into criminal matters;
- Avoiding the costs of other government services; and
- Improving the efficiency of court proceedings.
It is unfortunate that, like many of the reviews and inquiries completed over the past decade, the recommendations from the Inquiry into Access to Justice Arrangements have largely been ignored. Out of the 83 recommendations made by the Productivity Commission the previous government responded to just 17.
A decade on, this 2023 independent review is an opportunity to look at some of the issues raised by the Productivity Commission again in the context of the National Legal Assistance Partnership Agreement.
I am very grateful that Dr Mundy has agreed to lead this important review.
Dr Mundy will be engaging closely with the legal assistance sector, and other key elements of the justice system to ensure that a broad range of views are considered.
The review will be completed by early 2024, which will allow time to inform decisions on future funding arrangements for legal assistance.
I would encourage you all to engage with this process when the opportunity arises.
I am committed to ensuring that Australia’s legal assistance sector is robust and fit-for-purpose and the findings of the independent review will be crucial to meet this aim.
Legal assistance providers must be properly supported to undertake the important work they are entrusted with and the Government has a responsibility to ensure that this is the case.
While the National Legal Assistance Partnership will have delivered over $2.4 billion in Commonwealth funding by its conclusion in 2025, and the review will inform its successor arrangements, the Government is taking opportunities to address service gaps and challenges in the interim.
In recent weeks, we have secured an additional $21 million in funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services on top of the October 2022 Budget commitment of $13.5 million to support assistance in coronial inquiries, and the more than $460 million over five years that is dedicated to ATSILS under the NLAP.
In the May 2023-24 Budget we committed $18.4 million to improve the safety of women and children in international child abduction cases under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, including introducing a financial assistance scheme to enable eligible respondent parents to have equivalent access to legal representation as applicant parents.
We also provided an additional $13.4 million in the Budget for legal aid commissions to continue delivering lawyer-assisted family law property mediation services. These services have been demonstrated to be an effective way of assisting parties with small property pools to resolve post‑separation financial matters without going to court.
Family law amendments
The Government is committed to improving the systems that legal assistance and pro bono providers support clients every day. Many of you will be aware that the Family Law Amendment Bill 2023 has recently passed the House of Representatives and is now under consideration by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee.
The Bill makes significant changes to Part VII of the Family Law Act, and aims to simplify the parenting framework by streamlining the list of factors that courts consider when determining a child’s best interests.
The changes mean the Court will now simply consider six 'best interests' factors to decide the best parenting arrangements for each child. The factors include the child's safety, the benefit of having relationships with both parents, any views expressed by the child and their developmental, psychological, emotional and cultural needs.
These six factors are complemented by additional specific consideration of opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to maintain a connection with members of their family, community, culture, country and language.
These changes mean that for the vast majority of separated parents, who agree on their post-separation parenting arrangements, it will be easier to understand what should be considered in determining parenting arrangements.
In the minority of separations where parents can’t reach an agreement, this framework will make it easier and faster for the courts to make a decision.
The legislation also repeals the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility, and associated requirements for courts to consider specific time arrangements, to address the unintended consequences of the 2006 reforms to the Family Law Act.
Finally, it has been just over six years since more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates gathered at Uluru, ‘from all points of the Southern Sky’ to make a request for Voice, Treaty and Truth.
Following the May 2022 election, among the Prime Minister’s very first words to the nation was his commitment to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.
On 30 March 2023, I was proud to introduce the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023 into the Parliament.
Earlier this week, the Bill passed the Parliament, clearing the way for a referendum to be held this year.
Enshrining a Voice in the Constitution will ensure that it is an enduring institution that can represent the views of First Nations people. The Constitution Alteration will enhance our democracy and create a critical link between First Nations communities, the Parliament, and the Executive Government.
In closing, I want to thank you again for inviting me to speak today and once again extend my gratitude to the Australian Pro Bono Centre, the Queensland Law Society, and the Law Council of Australia.
I look forward to working with you to create a fairer society by improving access to justice.