We place complete trust in our courts to enforce justice, but can they claim to be ‘just’ when they leave some Australian citizens out in the cold?
We possess basic rights within our society. For example, everyone has the right to a free education, up until our thirteenth year we pay virtually nothing to attend a public school. When it comes to universities the government provides us with options like student loans to ensure that everyone who wants it, gets a chance at a tertiary education.
We also have rights when it comes to health; with Medicare helping us cover the huge costs of treatments, medicines and emergency services when the unimaginable happens.
Our everyday Australian, earning an average wage, has help when it comes to health and education, but what do we do when our legal rights are threatened?
Just ask our Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis who says that, ‘unless you are a millionaire or a pauper, the cost of going to court and protecting your legal rights is beyond you.’
What he means by this is, your average Australian can’t afford private lawyers, and doesn’t qualify for legal aid.
So what does this leave us with?
A gap; a huge group of people who can’t afford to protect their rights, and it’s no wonder when law firms are charging up to $600 an hour.
So we are left with limited options when a legal battle is eminent: pro-bono, legal commissions or self representation. These options are hard to acquire and often don’t achieve the best result.
This problem can only be solved, I believe, by the expansion of the Legal Aid sector. Community legal education can only go so far, because often people need real legal help, with serious legal problems.
The second group of forgotten plaintiffs that have caught my attention are migrants, and especially migrant women.
27% of Australia’s population was born overseas, ruled by foreign governments with foreign legal systems. Culturally and language diverse people (CALD) especially, have a hard time adapting to our systems because they often hail from countries rife with corruption, where they’ve learnt to be suspicious towards official bodies.
They carry this mistrust to Australia, where they continue to avoid approaching legal institutions. In cases of domestic violence, migrant women are left with no one, either not knowing how to find help, or too scared to try. Often, immigrants do not even recognise when a crime has been committed against them, such as in cases of assault and abuse. When they do seek help it’s often with other non-government institutions such as Rape Crisis Centres or community groups.
To provide much-needed services to this second group of vulnerable Australians, legal institutions need to form working relationships with non-government institutions so that potential clients can be referred to legal help if need be. Training for lawyers is essential, so that when CALD people approach them for legal help, they have a basic understanding of their culture and the barriers that might exist between them because of it. This is important, as families can have strong beliefs about allowing officials to get involved in family matters in cases of divorce.
Quotas are another useful strategy; this can ensure that CALD people and women are working in firms and can help, and relate to vulnerable clients. Lastly, education; by educating immigrants about their legal rights, and the paths they can take to defend them, you encourage them to come to you, rather than the other way around.
The ‘legal affordability gap’ and the problems surrounding CALD peoples, are two flaws within the legal system that have to be recognised and addressed.
Unfortunately I, a second year law student, cannot provide all of the answers and solutions – I’ll give it a good try though.
All it takes is Australian people standing up for their rights and asking their government to make a change.