A new report has warned Australia’s already-strapped Legal Assistance sector is under severe pressure from rising demand and needs urgent increased funding to continue delivering vital services for the community.
The Impact Economics Justice on the Brink report commissioned by National Legal Aid found $484 million in funding per year is required to meet unmet demand for Legal Aid, by expanding the availability of family and civil law services, providing greater access under the means test and increasing private practitioner fees.
Demand for Legal Aid has been driven by population growth and increasing legal need, with new data showing the number of people accessing Legal Aid Commission websites and hotlines across Australia tripling in recent years.
The report comes as the Commonwealth Government undertakes a review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership – the agreement which funds the legal assistance sector – led by Dr Warren Mundy.
The report found investing in Legal Aid would deliver $600 million in economic and social benefits in return, including cost savings from dispute resolution, improved livelihoods, and reduced pain and suffering.
National Legal Aid Executive Director Katherine McKernan said failing to fund Legal Aid would deny people access to justice.
“Legal Aid remains chronically underfunded. There is a longstanding gap between legal assistance need and legal assistance funding,” Ms McKernan said.
She said funding for the sector had fallen despite a 2014 Productivity Commission report recommending $200 million in additional Commonwealth funding.
“This funding was never provided and instead, Commonwealth funding has shrunk in per capita terms, falling from $18.59 to $18.10 in the decade to 2021-22,” she said.
“This unmet legal need disproportionately impacts disadvantaged communities, including First Nations people, people living with disability, and poorer people.”
Report co-author Emily Millane said the current issues would compound in the future.
“If we fail to make the necessary investment today, the annual cost of a dysfunctional system will grow alongside the bill for necessary structural repair,” Dr Millane said.
“Denied justice costs more in the long run – economic costs, health costs, and ultimately, costs to wellbeing.”
The full Justice on the Brink report is available here.