This last year has seen rampant cuts to legal aid – funding to Legal Aid, the Aboriginal Legal Service and community legal centres being reduced by millions of dollars.
Legal Aid will not be funding expensive or lengthy criminal trials that are listed from April 2015. This is because the current government cut $6.5 million from the Expensive Commonwealth Criminal Cases Fund (ECCCF). The $2.7 Million allocated for the 2014/2015 financial year has already been exhausted.
The President of the Bar Association, Ms Jane Needham SC released in a press statement vehement opposition to cuts: “Of particular concern under current circumstances is the capacity of state courts to conduct complex trials such as people smuggling, drug cases, social security frauds and terrorism cases. Without an immediate injection of Commonwealth funding for legal aid, that would have to be in doubt”
Cutting funding to legal aid is a myopic and unjust decision. We should be reinvigorating our commitment to a fair legal system, not letting it slip by.
Cutting funding to legal aid is also not an efficient way to save money. This is because the inevitably harsher punishments will just create burdens elsewhere – such as the cost of incarceration, the cost of health care and increased rates of recidivist crime. It also increases legal costs, as an increasing number of defendants are self-represented and require extra explanation of legal concepts and curial procedures.
These cuts also abrogate due process. Everyone has a right to a strong defence, and whether you are convicted of a crime should not turn on your financial situation, but only your actual criminal responsibility. Cuts to funding stacks the legal system against the disadvantaged, who are already disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system.
Lawyers paid by Legal Aid have not seen an hourly wage increase in the last 15 years.
It is crucial that opposition to these cuts not abate. It is usually a politically expedient decision to cut funding from the representation of those accused of crimes. It shouldn’t be.
Peter O’Brien is a specialist practising in Criminal Law. If you are in need of assistance please don’t hesitate to contact O’Brien Solicitors at (02) 9261 4281.