Whitlam Institute Seminar - "Spotlight on Legal Aid”
Good afternoon everyone.
I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I pay my respects to their elders past and present, and also to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.
I also acknowledge John Faulkner, both for his warm introduction, and his long and distinguished service to the parliament and the nation.
I thank John, and Justice Michael Lee, for their invitation on behalf of the Whitlam Institute.
We are joined today by a long list of distinguished guests including:
- My friend Chansey Paech, the Attorney-General of the Northern Territory
- Justice Dina Yehia
- Judge Kylie Beckhouse; and
- Whitlam Institute Board Members Kim Williams and Catherine Dovey
I thank the Whitlam Institute for establishing this series and for inviting me to speak on two matters in which I have particular interest: the transformative legacy of the Whitlam Labor Government, and the vital importance of legal assistance in promoting equality before the law.
It is just over half a century since the Whitlam Government was elected.
During his period of office, Gough Whitlam, the 21st Prime Minister of Australia, did not waste a day.
One year into his first term Whitlam told the House of Representatives – with some prescience – “the changes we have made will remain – like all great Labor legislation – permanent landmarks in our history.”
Medibank which became Medicare, family law reform including no fault divorce, equal pay legislation, anti-discrimination legislation and Aboriginal land rights transformed Australia. They are permanent landmarks in our history, and Australian life is the better for them.
The Whitlam Government was, at its core, a reformist government. Whitlam was a lawyer. His Attorney-General, Lionel Murphy, was also a lawyer. And they both knew that laws, and the legal system that gives them life, can change lives.
I went to university during the term of the Whitlam Government. Whitlam inspired me, and many other Australians. He demonstrated that with vision, and courage, government can be a force for positive, and lasting, change.
I hope the Labor Government I serve will similarly be remembered – albeit with a little, or even a lot, more time in office to make a real difference.
Legal assistance and equality before the law
An area of utmost priority for the Albanese Government – and me as Attorney-General – is strengthening the legal assistance sector to deliver support to Australians who need it.
Legal assistance is a key principle of the rule of law. This, in turn, is a core tenet of a healthy democracy.
Legal assistance services ensure that equality before the law is more than an aspiration.
Providers of legal assistance make access to justice a reality.
Whitlam and legal aid
Just weeks after taking office, Whitlam told the 1973 Australian Legal Convention:
I am more than ever convinced that lawyers (and some of my most useful colleagues are lawyers) . . . are able to discern issues, to express issues and to devise solutions more than people of any other discipline in the country; but there is a very real risk that lawyers will appear to be beyond the reach of the citizen. The courts must always be accessible ... but also the profession must be accessible. It must be relevant and it must be seen to be relevant.
Right from the start the Whitlam Government recognised that access to justice was critical to achieving its goal of a just society.
Out of that belief came the commitment to Commonwealth Government involvement in Australia’s legal assistance sector – a commitment I share.
Before Whitlam, the Commonwealth Government had little involvement in legal assistance. It was a responsibility that sat almost exclusively with the States and Territories and the private legal profession.
Lionel Murphy had a clear view about what legal assistance could achieve. In 1973 he declared “one of the basic causes of inequality before the law is the absence of adequate and comprehensive legal aid arrangements throughout Australia.”
Australian Legal Aid Office
Murphy understood the problem and he sought to fix it, beginning with the creation of the Australian Legal Aid Office.
Established in 1973, the ALAO delivered, for the first time, a Commonwealth-funded national scheme that offered legal advice to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Working in consultation and collaboration with welfare organisations, community groups, and private practitioners, the ALAO established many of the practices that characterise our legal assistance sector today.
Speaking in the Senate, Murphy said:
“I see the role of the Australian Legal Aid Office as taking the law to the people who most need it. I want to see small unpretentious ‘storefront’ offices opened up in the suburbs of the cities and in country centres. I want them to be the kind of offices to which the ordinary man or woman faced with a legal problem will go as readily as he or she would go to the garage with an ailing motor car.”
The ALAO improved access to legal aid, allowing low-income people to be eligible for legal representation. For the first time in this country, access to justice came close to being a reality for all, not just for some.
The ALAO was hugely popular. An independent survey in 1975 revealed extremely strong agreement among Australians there was a need for the service. This is one of many examples of the Whitlam Government’s commitment to “contemporary relevance”: ensuring that policies and institutions were in step with the needs of modern Australia.
Legal Assistance Funding and Aboriginal Legal Services
The Whitlam Government also contributed significant financial support to community legal centres, law society programs, and Aboriginal Legal Services.
The allocation of Commonwealth funding to Aboriginal Legal Services was particularly significant. The Whitlam Government recognised that inadequate representation of Aboriginal people in the Australian legal system was a barrier to their equality in society. Acknowledging the vital work of the then recently-created Aboriginal Legal Service in Redfern, funding was provided to open offices across Australia.
Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services exist in every state and territory, and continue to provide culturally appropriate legal assistance services to First Nations people.
The legal assistance sector today
The Whitlam Government’s decision to engage in national legal aid reform was a watershed moment in Australian legal history.
Commonwealth support for legal assistance continues to have ‘contemporary relevance’, which is why I am such a passionate supporter of the sector.
Commonwealth support for the legal assistance sector now encompasses legal aid commissions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, community legal centres, and Family Violence Prevention Legal Services.
Legal assistance providers increasingly offer innovative services that recognise that legal need is often related to other kinds of need. Lawyers work alongside case managers, social workers, and financial counsellors. The success of these service models is seen, for example, in Health Justice Partnerships, which combine legal assistance with healthcare, and Domestic Violence Units, which link up with other relevant services, such as trauma counselling and emergency accommodation.
As Attorney-General, my focus is on ensuring that the sector is not only adequately resourced, but also that the administrative burden on the sector is proportionate and reasonable.
To that end, I have recently gained the agreement of my State and Territory counterparts – including Chansey – to remove clauses from the National Legal Assistance Partnership that forced legal assistance providers to collect and report excessive data, and restricted them from engaging in advocacy.
Ending the gag on the sector is vitally important. They are better placed than almost anyone in the profession to provide advice on law reform and legal assistance, because every day they see how vulnerable Australians are affected by the law.
The Albanese Government recognises the vital work of the sector, and values its contribution to social justice and to safeguarding equality before the law for all Australians.
Indigenous Justice and Family and Domestic Violence
All legal assistance providers, but particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and Family Violence Prevention Legal Services, play an important role in achieving the outcomes under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, to which this Government is deeply committed.
This Government’s first Budget delivered historic funding aimed at Closing the Gap and improving the lives of Indigenous Australians. This included increased funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, and funding for the national peak bodies for Family Violence Prevention Legal Services and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services. It also included $81.5 million to invest in up to 30 community-led justice reinvestment initiatives across Australia and establish an independent national justice reinvestment unit as recommended by the Australian Law Reform Commission, the largest funding package in justice reinvestment ever committed by the Commonwealth.
One of the largest areas of the work taken on by legal assistance providers, especially legal aid commissions, is family law. In many cases the risk of domestic and family violence in these matters is high. The National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children recognises the significant role legal assistance has to play in addressing, and ultimately eliminating, family and domestic violence. Through the National Legal Assistance Partnership, the Government provides dedicated funding for legal services for women.
This Government is dedicated to supporting the legal assistance sector so it can continue to deliver important services and increase access to justice.
Benefits of Legal Aid Report
It is important to me that we celebrate the achievements of our legal assistance sector, and recognise its far-reaching contribution.
Today, Annemarie Lumsden will launch National Legal Aid’s report on the benefits of providing access to justice. I would like to thank National Legal Aid for commissioning this important piece of research. The report details the enormous contribution legal assistance provides to Australian individuals, governments, and society.
Legal assistance services make our justice system more efficient and effective, reduce instances of domestic and family violence, improve mental health outcomes, and reduce the need for out-of-home care for children. These significant impacts are just a few of the report’s findings.
The report also notes that “the pain and suffering caused by unresolved legal issues can have lasting, intergenerational impacts.” The failure to resolve legal issues can entrench disadvantage and expose children to violence, reduce their educational opportunities, and result in homelessness and other disruptions.
This further demonstrates the essential role of legal assistance services in promoting safety, security and ultimately equality for all Australians. It serves to demonstrate that equality before the law translates into equality of opportunity more broadly.
Review of legal assistance funding
I am committed to ensuring Australia’s legal assistance sector is properly supported.
The current National Legal Assistance Partnership will expire in on 30 June 2025, and an independent review of the agreement is commencing this year.
This will be a comprehensive review that will look at all aspects of the legal assistance sector, including the extent of unmet legal need. It will be an opportunity to show what needs to be done to equip the legal assistance sector to meet current and future needs.
Lionel Murphy said that he wanted the ALAO to “take the law to the people who most need it.” This, ultimately, is what legal assistance does.
As Attorney-General I will honour the Whitlam Government’s guiding principle of pursuing reforms that have ‘contemporary relevance’… and I will not waste a day.
I hope you find the remainder of the day interesting and productive.