It is very likely that the Queensland Government's recent funding cuts to community legal centres will adversely impact on access to justice in Queensland.
The Environmental Defenders Office Qld, the Environmental Defenders Office NQ, Sisters Inside and, most recently, the Queensland Working Women's Service have had their State government funding cut off which is likely to see their services being significantly reduced or, in some cases, ceasing entirely.
Equality before the law and the principle of non-discrimination lie at the heart of most international human rights instruments. For example, Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that "all persons shall be equal before the courts and tribunals."
Equality before the law is also about ability to access the law. These cuts jeopardise access to the law in areas where people are particularly vulnerable or where money and resources are concentrated in the hands of large businesses. They undermine Australia's practical ability to comply with the principles found in the human rights documents.
These concerns are reflected in a recent submission to the Federal Government by the Law Council of Australia:
Equality before the law is meaningless if there are barriers that prevent people from enforcing their rights. … The legal assistance system is critical in overcoming these barriers.
The Attorney-General, the Honourable Jarrod Bleije, announced that State provided funding to the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) Qld and EDO NQ would cease as at 30 June 2012. The loss constitutes half of the offices' recurrent funding. Both offices work to protect the environment in the public interest. They advise and act for individuals, community groups and conservation groups, in addition to taking an active role in environmental law reform, policy formation and community legal education. The EDOs provide free legal advice to Queenslanders faced with issues pertaining to the environmental, planning and health impacts of proposed developments.
Sisters Inside also suffered defunding from 30 June 2012. Sisters Inside Inc. is an independent community organisation working with women in prison to address gaps in available services. Ms. Debbie Kilroy, the founder, has stated, "It will mean that we can no longer operate effectively as a community legal centre." Most significantly, the funding cuts will affect a program that assists disadvantaged women to appear before the Special Circumstances Court. This innovative program diverts homeless offenders away from the criminal justice system and reduces recidivism.
Recently, the Queensland Working Women's Service Inc. (QWWS) also had all its state funding discontinued. The service relied heavily on state funding for its viability. The funding cut may well see the QWWS cease to function. The service has provided free telephone information and practical advice to Queensland women regarding all work-related issues for almost 20 years. The service provides a "safety net" for women dealing with work-related matters. In particular, the QWWS advocates for women faced with unfair dismissal, discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace.
The impact of these funding cuts may be seen by published research on the importance of community legal centres in the overall legal services environment in Australia. A recent report released by Community Law Australia noted the cost of legal services in Australia is unaffordable, severely inhibiting access to justice. As the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia, the Honourable Wayne Martin, stated, "big business can afford access to the courts, but the ordinary Australian can't."
The report noted the important role of community legal centres. Specifically, the report stated "over 80 per cent of the people helped by community legal centres receive under $26,000 a year in income."
The funding cuts and the consequent decrease in services provided by the EDO Qld, the EDO NQ, Sister's Inside and QWWS, will prevent many of the most vulnerable members of our community from accessing justice.
The recent funding cuts will have a serious negative effect on the ability of the community to access justice. The government should reconsider the focus of its drive to save government funds. Certainly, the government should consider whether it really wants to cause such adverse impacts to the ability of ordinary Queenslanders to have reasonable access to justice and, through that, equality before the law.
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About the Authors
Stephen Keim has been a legal practitioner for 30 years, the last 23 of which have been as a barrister. He became a Senior Counsel for the State of Queensland in 2004. Stephen is book reviews editor for the Queensland Bar Association emagazine Hearsay. Stephen is President of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and is also Chair of QPIX, a non-profit film production company that develops the skills of emerging film makers for their place in industry.
Salwa Marsh holds a BA/LLB(Hons) from the University of Queensland with majors in political science and history. While at University, she was a member of the University of Queensland Human Trafficking Working Group, an intern at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and an intern with Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health. She hopes to be admitted as a solicitor in October of 2012.
Kate Moran is currently completing a dual degree of Arts/Laws at the University of Queensland, with an extended major in Criminology. She recently returned from six months abroad where she studied on exchange at the University of Toronto. Throughout her degree, she has also been involved in the community legal sector, volunteering with Prisoner's Legal Service, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and Caxton Legal Service. All things going to plan, she hopes to graduate at the end of 2012.