By Ms Haley McEwen (pictured,inset) Senior Lecturer and Head of Discipline (Law) in the Charles Sturt Centre for Law and Justice, based in Port Macquarie.
Law Week is an annual event that aims to increase public knowledge of the law and enhance access to justice for all Australians.
Each year, state law societies and various partners host an array of events to promote and engage the legal profession and educate the public on legal issues and legal services.
Legal institutions, such as courts, the police, solicitors, barristers, community services, libraries and educational institutions, come together to help Australians to understand their legal rights and where they can go for help.
What is ‘access to justice’?
Access to justice is a right that many people take for granted, and which we know many groups of Australians struggle to attain.
It represents the ability of someone to access legal services and dispute resolution mechanisms necessary to protect their rights and interests, and the ability to engage with non-legal advocacy and support and to participate effectively in court and advocacy processes.
That is, ‘access’ is not just about a person’s ability to ‘see a lawyer’ but to firstly recognise that they have a legal problem, and be able to take steps to address it, knowing who to ask, being ready to engage and able to understand the advice and choose from the options available to them.
Who are most disadvantaged?
The Law Council of Australia’s 2017 national review into the state of access to justice in Australia identified 13 priority groups who face significant social and economic disadvantage and so often cannot access justice in the way we expect, due to systemic flaws and gaps in service delivery.
These include (among others) people with disability, those who are economically disadvantaged, people who experience discrimination and disadvantage due to their sexual orientation, sex characteristics, intersex status or gender identity, prisoners and detainees, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, victims of family and domestic violence, children and young people, older persons, and rural, regional and remote Australians.
Importantly, many people face multiple circumstances of disadvantage due to characteristics that overlap with multiple parts of their identity. For example, a person might be ageing and homeless, living in a remote area and have a disability or poor mental health, which means they face multiple complex layers of disadvantage and higher barriers to accessing the legal services that do exist.
The tyranny of distance
People who live in regional, rural, remote and very remote areas of Australia often struggle with the distance, transport and costs involved in accessing a lawyer, once they know they have a legal problem and have some idea of who they can ask for help.
Recent research demonstrates that 11 per cent of Australian lawyers practice outside the city, serving 31 per cent of Australians living on 90 per cent of the continent.
Law firms and community legal services are struggling to recruit professionals to non-city areas, which severely impacts their ability to service larger geographical areas.
While technological solutions have improved the access some people have to legal information and advice, we must remember that literacy levels are varied, and many remote communities still do not have access to reliable internet.
The economic pressures recognised in this year’s federal Budget demonstrates an awareness that people are doing it tough, and the price of utilities is rising. Policies designed to alleviate the pressures of distance need to recognise the limitations of ‘self-help’ solutions.
Don’t people just ‘call a lawyer’?
The reality is that most people resolve their legal problems without using lawyers or the formal justice system.
A survey conducted in 2012 by the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, which is the most comprehensive survey on legal needs in Australia, found that 30 per cent of people handled legal problems without advice. Of the remaining 70 per cent, only one third used legal advisers, the rest consulted government and dispute resolution services, trade unions or professional organisations, health and welfare and financial advisers.
Therefore, many people are more likely to seek advice from health or welfare professionals than from lawyers.
The barriers people reported to seeking legal advice included that they had difficulty getting through on the telephone, it was too expensive, the service took too long to respond, the advice was poorly explained, the advisers were too far away or too hard to get to, and many people were not aware that non-profit legal services existed.
The legal assistance sector in particular has taken significant steps to address this gap, by designing and delivering legal services to the most vulnerable in ways that meet them where they are at.
For example, many community legal services have established ‘Health Justice Partnerships’ where they work in collaboration with a medical or community service organisation where people go for their immediate health needs, and often disclose to a health worker the fact they have legal problems, and that health worker can link them in with a lawyer.
Other models of legal service delivery that respond to community needs include Legal Aid NSW’s Disaster Response Legal Service, a state-wide service that provides free legal help to people affected by disaster, such as we have seen in the recent Lismore and Forbes floods.
So where can people go for help?
There are many excellent legal resources that are available to link people with the help they need.
In New South Wales, LawAccess is a great place to start. They host a free government telephone service and website, which contains reliable, up to date information on common legal topics such as going to court, debt, fines, family or domestic violence, employment problems, buying goods and service, motor vehicle accidents and planning ahead (wills, powers of attorney and enduring guardianship). They can provide legal information over the phone, send information, such as fact sheets, forms, publications and refer to another service for specialist legal advice, whether a private lawyer, Legal Aid, Aboriginal Legal Service, or Community Legal Centre.
LawAccess NSW 1300 888 529 (9am-5pm, Monday to Friday). Private solicitors can be found via the NSW Law Society’s directory where you can search by name, region or accredited specialty.
To access a range of webinars and see the events happening near you, visit the NSW Law Week website where you can register for an event and search by legal topic or area.
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