Legal Aid Cut for Disabled Children in Compo Cases

Children, disabled people and the mentally ill will be denied access to free legal advice on compensation matters under a range of cuts to Legal Aid NSW.

The service is $200,000 in deficit and has been forced to find savings to meet an even tighter budget for the new financial year, but ruled out tightening the means test.

Already 85 per cent of people who qualify for Legal Aid are on welfare, and most of the working poor are ineligible.

Instead the financially stretched service has chosen to stop representing children and people at a ”special disadvantage” in claims for victims’ compensation or those arising from vehicle accidents. It approved 46 grants in victim compensation cases over the past year.

Legal Aid NSW chief executive officer Bill Grant said these people would now be referred to private solicitors, but they would continue to receive free legal assistance for matters relating to guardianship, tenancy or debt tribunals.

”We are like all state government agencies at the moment – we are doing what we have to do to live within our budget,” Mr Grant said. ”There are no easy cuts in Legal Aid, but we are doing what we can to limit the effect of any changes we make to our policies on our client base.”

The NSW opposition said the removal of support to children and disabled people in compensation matters was ”a blow against some of the most vulnerable members of our community”.

“Not providing legal assistance to these groups will mean they won’t be able to maintain their rights,” shadow attorney-general Paul Lynch said.

The Legal Aid NSW board is also proposing to make grants available only to defendants planning to defend charges in the local court where a prison sentence is a possibility, unless there are exceptional circumstances such as a disability.

Grants are at present made to anyone who meets the means test.

Senior judicial officers fear the withdrawal of free legal advice to many defendants in the local court could extend court waiting times as more people choose to represent themselves.

The president of the NSW Bar Association, Phillip Boulten, said the proposed cuts could also encourage defendants to plead guilty in order to qualify for legal representation.

”The amount of money being made available to the Legal Aid commission is appalling,” Mr Boulten said.

The workload was greater than ever as a result of more red tape arising from recently passed state laws and the new drug court, Mr Boulten said.

A recent High Court decision on sentencing – the Muldrock decision – also forced Legal Aid to re-examine 1000 old cases, which will result in 65 new appeals.

A spokeswoman for NSW Attorney-General Greg Smith said Legal Aid NSW made its own budgeting decisions.

”There is no prospect of solicitors being unavailable for murder trials, since the current proposal relates only to some summary matters in the local court,” she said.

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Legal, Corrections, Justice System

Harriet Alexander, Anna Patty

The Age

Date published:
Fri 14th Jun, 2013