A2J, Political Pressure and Federal Politics: The View from AustraliaNSRLP
I’ve been in Sydney and Adelaide since the beginning of September, giving talks and workshops about the SRL research (like Canada and the US, Australia is facing an exponential rise in the numbers of those coming self-represented to the courts).
Politically, it’s been a pretty exciting week for Australians.
After weeks of intrigue, the ruling Liberal Party of Australia deposed their leader, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, on Monday evening.
Not that this was so surprising to Australians, who have seen four PMs removed by their own party in the last five years. The most popular insight presently trending on social media here is that Australia has not seen a PM serve their full term since the invention of the iPhone.
Which was, obviously, another age ago.
Abbott on A2J
No one, however, seems to be especially interested just now in analyzing the Abbott government’s track record on Access to Justice. This may be because the Abbott government did a lot of other things that many Australians feel unhappy about – including the Stop the Boats campaign, the elimination of renewal energy initiatives, and cuts to health care and education.
There is an important Access to Justice story from the Abbott period, however. In December 2014 the government announced dramatic cuts in the budgets of numerous “third sector” community agencies that provide legal assistance to vulnerable people, including the country’s 61 Community Legal Centres and the Legal Assistance Program for indigenous people.
Needs already overwhelming existing services
Twelve months earlier a report by the Australian Council of Social Services had concluded that unmet needs for legal assistance were rising exponentially, and ranked second only to the need for housing support among the poorest and most vulnerable communities.
Report data also showed that existing services were overwhelmed by the demand for legal assistance, and providers were unable to find enough staff or hours to anywhere near match the demand. The ACOSS Community Sector Report 2013.
Now budget cuts of up to 25% were proposed for these very same services – and some would be forced to close down entirely.
A united front
In an unprecedented show of solidarity, six of eight provincial and territorial attorneys general wrote to the federal AG demanding that the cuts be reconsidered. In that letter they said:
“The forecast cuts represent an abrogation of the Commonwealth Government’s responsibilities to this important area of service delivery to some of the most vulnerable in our community.”
A contradiction at the heart of “policy”
Elena Rosenman, the Executive Director of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Women’s Legal Centre, whose organization faced a 30% cut in funding, pointed out the contradiction between the Abbott government’s asserted public commitment to provide better protection for women facing domestic violence, and massive funding cuts for services.
“(C)utting funding to services like ours which are providing services to women trying to leave violent relationships, directly undermines that sentiment.”
Julie Oberin, the chairwoman of the Women’s Services Network, put it more bluntly:
“Women are increasingly seeking help and support and they’re increasingly being turned away because services are full. Now is not the time to cut funding…(I)f you don’t have crisis services, if you don’t have legal aid, you will have women dying.”
The pressure worked.
In March the Abbott government reversed its decision on the legal aid cuts: “Legal aid is sixth budget reversal“.
A foothold in the federal election narrative?
This story encourages us to remember that organized political and public pressure can have an impact. It is also a reminder that the challenges faced by legal services in Australia and the barriers to A2J are the same as those we face in Canada (where the federal government makes an important financial contribution to provincial legal aid plans) and are facing the US.
In the run-up to the federal election, there has been a deafening silence from politicians on issues of A2J. NSRLP has been trying to promote a debate by developing “Questions for Candidates”.
In this week’s National Magazine, Omar Ha Redeye argues that despite its neglect in the debates so far, A2J is an economic issue. He points to the 45% of Canadians that the CBA’s 2013 Reaching Equal Justice report said would have a legal issue in the next 3 years – a group whom we now know will have virtually no access to professional assistance from lawyers. As Omar succinctly expresses it, “Our inaction results in even greater inequality in Canadian society over time.”
Let’s get inspired by what Australians were able to do to reverse cuts to legal aid – and take hope from the increased provincial investment in legal aid announced by the Ontario government in the last 9 months – and encourage our friends and neighbours to ask pointed questions about A2J when they talk to candidates on their doorsteps and at riding meetings – and continue working on raising awareness about the importance and impact of fair and equal access to justice services for Canadian families.