In a continuing focus on matters relating to access to justice and the legal system, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus QC and Assistant Treasurer, David Bradbury, announced on 20 June 2013 that the Productivity Commission would undertake a review of how to improve access to justice in Australia.
Mr Dreyfus was quoted as stating, “the cost of accessing justice services and securing legal representation prevents many Australian from gaining effective access to the justice system“.
The Productivity Commission has been asked to examine the factors contributing to the costs of obtaining legal representation and accessing justice services while examining the social and economic impacts of these costs and whether they are proportionate to the issues in dispute. The Commission is also set to explore options for achieving lower cost dispute resolutions, including a focus upon alternative dispute resolutions; the improved use of technology; and fast tracking certain procedures. The Commission will also collect data on the number of Australians who may not be able to afford legal representation but who don’t qualify for legal aid.
Over the last 12 months, we have seen significant increases to fees charged upon certain Family Law Court processes, including filing for divorce and other applications, and also the issue of subpoenas. These changes have lead peak family law bodies, legal aid offices and community justice groups to express their concerns about the burden of these extra charges upon many who simply cannot afford them. While some exceptions were provided, it was recognised that the charges in fact had the effect of discouraging certain people from pursuing legitimate actions and processes.
Across Australia, legal aid bodies continue to struggle with inadequate funding and burgeoning demand. While the Government has just committed additional funding of $118 million to improving access to justice for all Australians in the last budget, but it appears likely that many people will continue to be unable to obtain legal representation.
The Family Law Courts experience a very significant number of self-represented parties and have developed specific guidelines in order to try to ensure that those without a lawyer are afforded procedural fairness. While Judges and other officers of the Court cannot give advice to a self-represented party, the guidelines provide a framework for some proper direction to be provided to self-represented parties by the Court. However, the other economic consequence of greater numbers of self-represented parties lies in the increased Court time and use of resources, which often apply in matters where there are self-represented parties. Like many areas reliant upon Commonwealth funding, the Family Law Courts will continue to be expected to “do more with less.”
Di Simpson is a Director at Dobinson Davey Clifford Simpson Family Law Specialists, 18 Kendall Lane, New Acton, Canberra ACT 2601 and can be contacted on (02) 6212 7600.