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Legal aid funding in a state of crisis: QLS

QLS President Elizabeth Shearer delivers a speech at the annual Exchange of Christmas Greetings in Brisbane’s Banco Court. Photo: Robyn Kinne.

Current Queensland legal aid funding is in a critical condition and likely to “lurch into crisis at any time’’ without an urgent injection of money from the government, according to Queensland Law Society.

QLS President Elizabeth Shearer today (15 Dec) said access to justice for the state’s most vulnerable was under threat – with most lawyers currently receiving only 50% of “any relevant court scale’’ in funding.

Ms Shearer’s comments came during the annual Exchange of Christmas Greetings hosted by Queensland’s Chief Justice Catherine Holmes during a ceremony in Brisbane’s QEII Court of Law’s ceremonial Banco Court.

A veritable ‘who’s who’ of the Queensland legal fraternity attended the event, including Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman, former governor and chief justice Paul de Jersey, the majority of Queensland’s Supreme Court judges, District Court Chief Judge Brian Devereaux, Magistrate Court Chief Judge Terry Gardiner and other dignitaries.

Ms Shearer, during her address, told those assembled there was one thing she “must mention’’ before her tenure as QLS President ends on 31 December 2021.

“The rates paid to the private solicitors and barristers throughout Queensland, who do around 75% of all legal aid representation work, has fallen so far below what is fair and reasonable that the system is unsustainable and likely to lurch into crisis at any time,’’ she said.

“For solicitors, the hourly rate approximates one half of any relevant court scale.

“The problem is compounded because a grant of aid rarely includes payment for all hours necessary to do the work.’’

Ms Shearer said despite the legal aid funding crisis, the legal profession continued to step up and ensure clients received the best possible representation.

“Because of their commitment to justice and ensuring all have adequate representation, barristers and solicitors continue to do legal aid work,’’ she said.

“Even so, every year, as economic reality intrudes, fewer are able to continue. While the work is being done, the government sees no compelling case to increase the rates paid.   

“As the year draws to a close, I have been pleased to work with colleagues at the Bar Association to draw attention to this problem and seek its simple remedy – which is a relatively modest amount of additional funding for Legal Aid Queensland.”

Read Ms Shearer’s full speech.

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