The provision of a properly funded legal aid system is crucial to upholding the rule of law and should be a first priority of government. The legal aid system is broken and relies on individual practitioners to make financial sacrifices or compromise their professional standards in order for it to survive. The failure of the State Government to provide sufficient legal aid funding in this week’s State budget means that this work is no longer a viable option for many barristers in this State.
As members may be aware, there has not been any increase in legal aid rates paid to private practitioners since 2007. There has not even been indexation for CPI increases over that period. This means that barristers undertaking legal aid work have experienced at least a 20 per cent reduction in fees in real terms over the last twelve years.
Yesterday’s State Budget failed to address this growing problem. Without a significant increase in counsel’s rates, it is no longer financially sustainable for many barristers to spend the time and do everything that it is necessary to undertake legal aid work.
Our ethical obligations as barristers require us to fearlessly promote our clients’ interests to the best of our skill and diligence. Unfortunately the current abysmal state of legal aid rates makes it increasingly difficult for barristers in many cases to spend the time to do all of the necessary work to properly prepare their clients’ cases and satisfy those ethical obligations in the absence of anything like adequate funding.
The Bar Association has frequently raised these issues with successive governments over many years, but our representations have fallen upon deaf ears. There has simply been no will on the part of governments to address the problem.
This is now the Government’s problem to fix – the legal profession has warned about this issue for a long time and has carried the burden through overwork and the negative impact on the health and personal life of members that that brings. The matter is now out of the profession’s hands.
In these circumstances members of the New South Wales Bar should not feel that they have any obligation to take on legal aid briefs when they will not receive anything approaching adequate payment to perform this important work.
I have today issued a media release setting out the Association’s position. Available here