Continuing attack on voices of dissent in what was once a civil society

Continuing attack on voices of dissent in what was once a civil society

Dissent Protects Democracy

After cutting funding to community legal centres (CLCs) in 2014 the Australian Attorney-General, George Brandis,  then claimed that with the limited resources available, funding for legal assistance through CLCs must be confined to “frontline” services from the first of July.

The new restriction initiated by Brandis drives a wedge between helping in these individual cases and working to change laws, practices and policies to prevent legal problems in the first place.

The strength of the CLC model is the integration of client case work and advice, community legal education and law reform work.  The law reform work is most often clearly driven and informed by issues and practices experienced and observed in the case work area. And, clearly, the casework informs the community legal education.  Both law reform and community legal education can be seen as preventative strategies; that will in the longer term lead to better resource allocation in CLC’s ; but more importantly, will lead to greater efficiencies and savings across the legal system and in government departments. This is not rocket science!

This was reinforced by the Productivity Commission’s  draft report on access to justice, which noted the efficiency and value of law reform and policy advocacy, and its central role in the work of community legal centres.

People who rely on CLCs generally have low incomes and face a host of often complex legal problems, flowing from relationship breakdown, tenancy disputes, credit and debt, consumer issues, family violence, fines and mistreatment in the workplace.

Australians are all subject to the laws of the land and how they are administered. If the laws on the ground are problematic, or unwieldy, then they need to be fixed. If governments want to remain connected with the public, they need to listen to the public and those who advocate on their behalf who have first-hand experiences of the legal system’s operation.

CLCs have often been the only agency identifying and advocating on specific problems faced by clients over many years. This has opened up CLCs to criticism. Despite this, CLCs have continued to advocate for clients.  CLCs have consistently had recommendations adopted by parliamentary, statutory and other inquiries at national and state level.  Law reform activities were levelled at local, state and federal governments and oppositions, irrespective of the persuasion of the parties in power at the time.

CLCs continue to be active in law reform because there are still areas to be improved. The role of CLCs in law reform is important because they often represent those in the community who are poor and have little or no power to generate change.

Governments and their agencies can lose sight of the on-the-ground experiences of members of the public. Bureaucracies and large corporations can be removed from the issues that confront many people. CLCs’ law reform activities have had a demonstrable effect on improving the laws and their administration in Australia. CLCs, through casework experience, have been able to identify problematic laws and policies which negatively affect clients and brought these experiences to the attention of governments, the public and industry and have forged changes that have led to the improvement of the justice system.

Very little research has been conducted on law reform in Australia per se and its impact on civil society.

While the Brandis restriction probably cannot be justified on efficiency grounds, it seems he is seeking to limit the voice of CLCs in public discourse. It appears that, like other Abbott ministers, Brandis is seeking to undermine CLC’s ability to question government policies. If CLCs can’t work to change flawed or unfair laws and practices and to prevent future legal problems arising, the access to justice crisis in Australia will only worsen.

While the right to question is an important one, it is secondary to achieving essential change. There are also many cases where law reform and policy advocacy are welcomed by government. But this attack on the advocacy and law reform work is not new; it is part of an ongoing sustained attack on voices of dissent in what was once a civil society.

Previously published on 28/6/14

Stephen Hall
Stephen Hall
Lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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