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Justice denied: Pro bono service axed after Government cuts funding

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A free legal service for disadvantaged South Australians forced to represent themselves in serious civil law matters – which helps save hundreds of thousands of dollars in court costs each year – will close after the State Government axed the funding for its not-for-profit provider.

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JusticeNet SA has announced the “difficult yet necessary decision” to close its State Courts Self-Representation Service later this month, as it diverts its self-raised funds into maintaining its “core business”.

The Self-Representation Service – which was run by volunteers from some of Adelaide’s most prominent law firms – has operated for the past six years, providing free legal advice and task assistance to thousands of people facing serious civil law problems but who can’t afford a lawyer.

JusticeNet executive director Tim Graham estimates the service provides around $241,500 in annual savings to government through reduced court operating costs, with volunteer lawyers contributing more than 1200 hours of free legal help – worth over $400,000 – to the service in the last financial year.

It required just $65,000 of annual government assistance to continue operating.

“It’s disappointing,” Graham told InDaily.

“As we so often see, short-term cost-cutting takes precedence over long-term investment in improvements to court efficiency.”

He said the service had “two key benefits, one of which was to assist individuals in court who couldn’t afford a lawyer” but also to “significantly improve court efficiency by assisting people so they’re better prepared when they’re before the court and didn’t cause so many delays”.

“It really was a win-win – for the courts and obviously for the clients, and I guess therefore for the wider community,” he said.

In February last year, then-SA Best leader Nick Xenophon committed to ongoing funding for JusticeNet, prompting the then-Labor Government to do the same, but the Liberals were more circumspect, saying they wanted to review funding across a range of legal services.

“We have no intention of cutting them off,” then-Shadow Attorney-General Vickie Chapman said at the time.

But the now-Attorney General has done just that, refusing further funding requests for programs or core operations since taking office – a stance that has already seen the closure of a separate service offering free legal help for refugees and asylum seekers.

In a bulletin to stakeholders last week, JusticeNet noted its Self-Representation Service “has delivered life-changing outcomes for many clients including avoiding or mitigating financial hardship and preventing homelessness” and “delivered cost-savings through increased court efficiency”.

A 2015 analysis by BDO Australia of the comparable Federal Courts Self-Representation Service found a cost saving of at least $2.10 for every dollar invested, with $50,000 of the service’s $115,000 administrative costs already provided by a philanthropic trust.

“Sadly, despite its proven legal, social and economic benefits, JusticeNet has been unable to secure consistent public funding for the Service [which] faces a funding shortfall too large for JusticeNet to absorb,” the bulletin continued.

The not-for-profit’s pro bono referral scheme and Federal Courts Self-Representation Service will continue to operate as normal through donations and fundraising.

“We’ve been asking for contributions towards our core operating costs from state government, but the Liberals declined,” Graham said.

“To keep [the self-representation service] going we used our own funds, but we couldn’t continue doing that because we had a shortfall for our core business… at the end of the day we had to make a decision to jettison something.”

In a statement, Chapman said the service operates “within the Supreme Court to provide assistance for those appearing in civil matters exclusively”.

“This particular program has operated since 2013, with funding secured predominantly from non-Government sources… the continuation of this funding is a matter for the current funding bodies,” she said.

“The Crown Solicitors’ Office within the Attorney-General’s Department has, and continues to make, a significant contribution to JusticeNet, with its lawyers providing many hours of pro bono work.”

It’s understood the Attorney-General earlier this year refused to provide any further funding for JusticeNet’s core operations, which have previously been underpinned by about $120,000 of public money each year.

Law Society SA chief executive Stephen Hodder told InDaily in a statement it was “disappointing to see a further reduction to legal assistance services provided in SA”.

“South Australia’s legal assistance sector is substantially underfunded, particularly in the civil jurisdiction,” he said.

“The Society continues to advocate for a better resourced legal assistance sector that would allow more people, particularly those suffering hardship, to access legal representation.”

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