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Opening Pandora’s Box – Poverty and the Law in Australia in 2022

Poverty and equitable access to justice for all Australians – particularly society’s most disadvantaged – is the focus of the 2022 University of Queensland (UQ) law journal, Pandora’s Box.

The UQ Justice and the Law Society (JATL) has assembled contributions from eminent jurists and legal professionals who discuss and address the issue of poverty and its impact on law in Australia.

Pandora’s Box editors James Arthur and Asha Varghese say this edition – launched in Brisbane earlier this month – broadly considers the question of poverty and sets out to investigate what the law could and should do about it.

“While undertaking such an investigation is no easy task, the essays in this collection make one thing clear: there is a need for the law to change in accordance with the imperatives of social justice,” they say.

Contributors include Queensland’s first Court of Appeal President and current Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce chair the Honourable Margaret McMurdo AC, Chair of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability the Honourable Ronald Sackville AO and UQ law Professor Tamara Walsh. Interviewees include criminal lawyer and founder of Sisters Inside Debbie Kilroy, and Sunshine Coast Community Legal principal solicitor Julian Porter.

Passionate social justice advocate and Queensland Law Society 2022 Access to Justice Award winner Bill Mitchell OAM – who is Townsville Community Law’s principal solicitor – addresses the topic of economic security rights for older Australians.

“The right to economic security would create a powerful tool to address poverty,” Mr Mitchell says. “Conceptually, the right to economic security includes an interplay between a legion of civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and collective human rights.

“The latent value of a future convention on the rights of older persons (older persons’ convention) is that it may articulate a novel, specific right to economic security that is currently absent from the existing human rights landscape.

“An older person’s convention would thereby complement existing treaties, global development goals and agendas that seek to eradicate poverty and provide an enforceable guarantee of economic security for older Australians.”

Ms Walsh, in an article entitled ‘Poverty in Australia’, suggests that while “the poor” would be seem self-evident to most people, there is no reliable legal definition of ‘poverty’ in Australian law.

“Indeed, the word poverty is seldom used in legal contexts,” she says. “Instead, ‘hardship’ is generally used to denote the concept of poverty, and what constitutes hardship varies depending on the decision being made, as well as the values of the decision-maker.”

Ms Walsh’s paper discusses various legal and non-legal definitions of poverty.

Ms McMurdo’s article speaks about the widening gap between Australia’s richest and poorest – in a country considered the fourth richest in the world.

“The richest 10% of households own 46% of all Australian wealth while the poorest 60% of Australian households own just 17% of that wealth,” Ms McMurdo says.

Pandora’s Box, which was first published in 1994, is JATL’s annual academic journal aimed to bring academic discussion of legal, social justice and political issues to a wider audience. It is available online.

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