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Robes rally for fairer courts

Peter Mares writes in Inside Story (18.5.16) about the continuation of cuts to government funding for legal aid. He observes that barristers and solicitors have taken the unprecedented step of publicly rallying to demand an increase in funding to the courts.

‘It was at the polite end of the protest spectrum. As the hundreds of people rallying outside Melbourne’s County Court threatened to block pedestrian access along Lonsdale Street, solicitor Mark Woods reminded them that the Queen’s footpath must remain free to passing traffic.

‘But in the legal world, politeness often combines with passion, and this demonstration was no exception. Having called on us all to respect the right of way, Woods went on to describe what was happening inside the court complex that was our backdrop. More than 80 per cent of those appearing in court today, he said, would suffer from a mental illness, be a victim of domestic violence, have a problem with substance abuse, or be homeless or be unemployed. “More than 60 per cent of them will have been to court before,” said Woods, who chairs the Law Council of Australia’s Access to Justice committee. “Yet only a quarter would qualify for legal aid.”

‘Funding for legal aid has been declining in real terms for almost twenty years now, ever since the first cuts made by the Howard government in 1997. In per capita terms, according to retired judge Betty King QC, legal aid funding has almost halved.’

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