I refer to Rachel Spencer's article in InDaily on Tuesday, 7 August 2012. Well worth a read.
I wrote back as follows:
I refer to Rachel Spencer's article about Legal Aid in InDaily, 7 August 2012.
Ms Spencer's article gives a good summary of the system for Legal Aid, and the alternatives, including Community Legal Centers and special interest legal services, such as ALRM (Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement) and Women's Legal Service.
The Legal Services Commission is, like many government departments, horribly over-worked, under-staffed and under-funded. Without wishing to criticise any of the staff there, there are serious access to justice issues involved in the process.
Putting aside for a moment the amount of funding available or the limited types of cases 'deserving' of aid, a large issue is presently the delay in getting Aid.
All applications must be in writing. Although the LSC states that in urgent cases you can make a telephone application, they have never yet accepted that, and have always asked me to put something in writing. It is possible to fax applications through.
All applications must be accompanied by centrelink statements (if applicable) and three months of bank statements. Most banks won't give you more than one month without posting them to you, so there is a 3-4 day delay, or more if you are a country resident.
That application is usually posted to the LSC, or faxed if there is some urgency. And then... nothing happens. There is a wait of at least two but usually more than three weeks before any response is received. Commonly I lost patience after three weeks and call up to ask if aid has been granted, only to be told 'cheque is in the mail.' That response takes another 3-4 days to get to us/the client, meaning we are more than 4 weeks in before we see anything.
In the mean time, our client has had to front court un-represented and explain to a Magistrate why they don't have a lawyer. Worse, it is often the 2nd time in Court because of some delay, and the Magistrate starts getting testy. Understandably.
Once aid is granted, it is a constant battle to secure further funding for reports and assessments. In many cases, a psychological or psychiatric report is necessary, either to explain a condition relevant to sentencing, or to provide the basis for a defence under the mental impairment laws.
If we apply for funding after the client pleads guilty (maybe 3-4 appearances into a matter) we can't book the client in to see a psychologist/psychiatrist until funding is confirmed. That might be another 4 weeks and one/two appearances. Then we have to get the client a referral and an appointment to see the professional, who is usually as busy as we are. Assume another two weeks. Then that professional has to prepare the report, at which point they will send us an invoice for the funds. We can then claim the money (2 weeks for processing, paid in the next cheque run, which is once per month, so assume up to 6 weeks further delay) and then they provide the report. We then need to take instructions...
This means that because of the time it takes to get and confirm aid, the client's matter, which could have been dealt with within a month or so, with no more than three appearances,l can take up to 6 months, with up to 10 appearances.
The Commission's reason for those delays are usually that the file has not been sent on to the merits assessor yet, or has not yet been considered.
Rachel Spencer stated that the commission needs to be reformed. I agree, but have yet to see a plan that might work to a) reduce costs and b) improve efficiency.
How about this: make all applications lodge-able online by registered lawyers, and make it paperless. Merge the CentreLink and LSC databases, so that with a signed consent, the LSC can see your centrelink records and confirm that you are on centrelink. Better yet, impose some legislation that allows the LSC to see your centrelink without signed consent. Finally, give the LSC a way to contact lawyers faster than by snail-mail. Hmm, email, perhaps? If the ATO can do it, why can't the LSC?
What do you think? How can we reform the LSC?