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Incentives needed to encourage lawyers to "go bush"

Opinion

Australia has a crisis in legal representation outside the major cities, argues legal commentator Morry Bailes.

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There is a legal black hole in regional and rural South Australia.

It’s a problem facing the entire country.

About 30% of people live outside a major Australian city – some 7.1 million of our country’s population. Yet only 10.5% of the legal profession work in these regions. Little wonder we have a crisis in our justice system for rural and regional residents.

These statistics, gathered by the Law Council of Australia’s Justice Project published in 2018, paint a truly disturbing picture of the difficulty regional people have in accessing lawyers or even recognising that they have a legal problem.

Their legal issues are diverse: from business succession to environmental laws regulating primary producers and fishermen, criminal law, family and domestic violence issues and family law.

At the recent Federal Council meeting of the Liberal Party of Australia, a resolution was passed dealing with rural doctors, which encourages the Federal Government to investigate incentives for recruiting and retaining General Practitioners in rural Australia.

The legal profession needs a similar commitment.

I should know: as managing partner of our firm, the challenge of recruiting lawyers to work in our rural and regional offices remains a huge hurdle. It makes it difficult to service country areas, and creates headaches in succession planning.

Yet local doctors, lawyers and accountants are vital to the people of our regions who form the backbone of our rural and regional economies. Put bluntly, tax and other incentives offered to professionals to live and work in the regions makes economic sense.

In 2018 the ABS reckoned agricultural lands occupied about 53% of our state, and for the 2017/18 financial year, the gross value of our agricultural sector was $6.6 billion. There are almost 90,000 farms in South Australia and, of course, the regions are home to our state fisheries, not to mention our mining and exploration.

So why are the regions so ignored?

The cost of a struggling legal system is difficult to calculate. The Productivity Commission in its landmark report about the civil justice system had a go when it published a report to then Treasurer Joe Hockey, which was tabled in Federal Parliament in January 2015.

It contained an expression that has now fortunately made its way into the discussion regarding the inability of many people to get adequate legal advice and representation – the ‘missing middle’. This refers to those members of society who do not qualify for legal aid but cannot afford legal services.

I have long held a view that justice in our regions needs to be seen to be done, rather than shipping off trials to Adelaide.

Many such people live in our regions, and this group includes those affected by drought and working the land. They suffer all manner of legal difficulties including dealing with debt. Timely advice from a lawyer in dealing with creditors can form part of an asset protection strategy and avoid litigation, but that is beside the point if someone cannot afford legal services in the first place.

The other hurdle faced by rural and regional people is our city-centric laws. Our legislation reeks of politicians who see the world from a city perspective. Some laws either don’t make sense or are unfair to country people.

Take for instance mandatory drivers licence disqualification. While this is an inconvenience for a city dweller, it can spell disaster for a farmer. Sure, traffic offences should not be committed in the first place, but that is not the point. The law should operate equitably: in this and many other areas, it does not when it comes to the regions.

There are signs that we may be waking up in some areas. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Measures) Bill of this year is welcome.

When it comes to the law though, little has changed. We need state grants and federal tax incentives to encourage lawyers to ‘go bush’.

Perversely, there is a still a large oversupply of legal graduates looking for jobs, while there is a desperate need for lawyers in our regions. Our governments, state and federal, need to help iron out what appears to be an economic kink in our supply and demand curve.

Rural and regional people have every right to be unhappy with the majority of Australians who live ensconced in our cities without regard for the value our regions bring to the nation. They are the food bowl, their contribution to our GDP is enormous, but when it comes to the law, they are being let down.

The courts are buckling under budgetary pressures and retracting regional circuits. I have long held a view that justice in our regions needs to be seen to be done, rather than shipping off trials to Adelaide.

There is widespread ignorance of the legal services that our regions need and, of course, an insufficiency of lawyers to deliver these.

For the compassionate, look at the many stories from rural and regional areas about people who have suffered great personal hardship by being unable to get basic legal advice. For the economic rationalist, there is the cost and the opportunity cost. Lawyers in the regions add to the local economy. Legal problems addressed at the outset save money in so many ways, it is worth our investment.

For medicine, we have both a universal health care system and private health insurance. Unlike in Europe and elsewhere, the legal services industry in Australia doesn’t have any similar options.

If we value the rule of law and what it contributes to society, then we should be concerned about people in our regions being deprived of it. It’s time to recognise what our regions both contribute and need – and they most definitely need a successfully functioning legal system.

Morry Bailes is managing partner of Tindall Gask Bentley Lawyers and immediate past president of the Law Council of Australia.

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