A peak body representing the Australian legal profession is calling on the Government to provide a minimum of $390 million to help address the chronic lack of national legal assistance in the country, with some of that funding going towards rural and regional areas.
The Law Council of Australia is calling on the Australian government to provide funding and strategies for legal services and assistance in rural and regional areas as part of its drought response.
They say the drought has caused farmers to face financial hardships and are struggling to afford a lawyer.
President, Morry Bailes said the government’s drought response must consider what kind of legal needs farmers and their communities have, which is often overlooked.
“Rural and regional communities generally experience a greater distance from services and resources, lower levels of education, poorer health outcomes and lower incomes,” he said.
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Mr Bailes said access to solicitors in rural, regional and remote areas typically involved parties travelling long distances.
“There were 19 local government areas in rural, regional or remote NSW with no locally-based solicitors at all, while several other local government areas had only one or two,” he said.
“Solicitors reported that droughts affected communities greatly, including their ability to afford a lawyer.”
Mr Bailes said while farmers may be asset rich, they can often struggle to afford a lawyer in times of drought.
“On top of that we know that many parts of rural, regional and remote Australia are critically underserviced when it comes to legal services and legal assistance,” he said.
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The Law Council’s Justice Project is a national, comprehensive review that examined the state of access to justice in Australia for people experiencing significant disadvantage.
Mr Bailes said concerns about a lack of access to justice in rural, regional and remote areas was raised several times by stakeholders consulted during the Justice Project.
“Where farmers and their communities are under financial pressure due to droughts – eg. due to mounting debts, and an inability to pay mortgages, - but at the same time unlikely to be able to afford or access legal assistance, it is highly likely that they have unmet legal needs which if unaddressed, will lead to matters escalating and compounding,” he said.
“The drought, and the financial hardship it causes, will only exacerbate the disadvantage rural, regional and remote Australians face in accessing justice.”
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Strategies to address these issues recommended in the Law Council’s ‘Just Project’ include placement, mentoring and incentive schemes, increased legal aid rates and bolstering practitioner referral networks.
“We are calling on the government, alongside with the legal sector, to prioritise rural, regional and remote justice strategies and funding to deliver services in areas of critical need,” Mr Bailes said.
The Attorney General was asked to provide a comment but did not respond by deadline.