Sentenced to Inequity

Justin Pen explains why your lawyer is as important as your doctor.

Drawing of lawyer sitting at desk.

Drawing of lawyer sitting at desk.

When you’re feeling a bit under the weather, suffering from a dribbly nose and a sore throat and some third, peculiar elemet—clammy ears or swollen feet—you’ll probably visit your doctor. Even if it’s a run of the mill cold or flu, you don’t want to take the risk that there’s something seriously wrong. It’s common sense. This ethos is known as preventative healthcare and it’s how we need to start seeing legal advocacy work.

The solicitors at the Redfern Legal Centre where I volunteer rarely argue before a court in suit and tie, let alone robes and wigs. Community Legal Centre (CLC) work happens behind the scenes and around the edges. It’s drafting letters, chasing up creditors and the persistent badgering of dodgy telcos, police and landlords to develop payment plans, elicit apologies and reclaim bonds. For the most part, it isn’t glorious. It’s your GP sticking a paddle pop stick on your tongue and telling you to say “ah”.

In its inaugural budget, the Abbott government cut funding to CLCs by $20 million over two years, with a further $6 million cut scheduled for the year after. Other community legal services targeted in the budget include the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS), which lost 20% of its Commonwealth funding.

These cuts have very real consequences. Following the federal budget, the ALS announced that it would have to junk its throughcare program. The program, which assisted Indigenous people making the transition from prison back into the broader community, is an example of the preventative services that CLCs can run.

Poverty and homelessness are two major preconditions for violent crime and property offences. They are in turn often caused by debt and housing issues which CLCs can, and do, help to resolve, via a gamut of services ranging from credit and debt advice to tenancy advocacy to police complaint support.

These services can be critically important, as the difference between affording groceries and living on the streets can be one bad phone bill or a transit fine. In the same way that GPs provide immunisations, early detection and preventative medicine, CLC foot-soldiers can ameliorate or prevent social and economic situations from rapidly deteriorating.

But above and beyond this, CLCs agitate to reform the law and apply gauze to the systemic issues their staff see in practice. They’re expert commentators on domestic violence, debt recovery, family law reform and a variety of other issues, precisely because they work at the coalface. In this instance, my analogy slips. CLCs aren’t just general practitioners; they’re a major part of research and development.

So threatening is this work that it last year became the subject of funding arrangement amendments, which determined that unauthorised “advocacy activities” could influence how much funding a CLC would receive.

Taking money from frontline services also means costs will be passed further down the chain. Research from the Law Council of Australia (LCA) indicates that every dollar we don’t invest in Legal Aid costs us $2.25 elsewhere in the community.

One such area is incarceration: the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports the national prison population is at a ten-year high. In fact, data from the Productivity Commission indicates we spent $2.6 billion on corrective services just last year. The LCA also highlights unemployment, mental health and social services as areas that cop the human cost of underfunded legal services.

The proposed $7 GP co-payment was axed last week, presumably sent to Valhalla with the dead, buried and cremated Workchoices legislation. But organisations like ALS, RLC and myriad other CLCs are still staring down cuts without the backing of major (or minor) political parties or vociferous community support. We need to start seeing our CLCs like we see our GPs, and we need to start fighting for them.