ACT government abolishes court costs for Commonwealth concession cardholders
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ACT government abolishes court costs for Commonwealth concession cardholders

Court costs for some Commonwealth concession cardholders have been scrapped under a new initiative the ACT government says will boost access to justice for vulnerable Canberrans.

People with Commonwealth health care cards, low income health care cards and pensioner concession cards no longer need to pay any court or tribunal fees, Attorney-General Simon Corbell has announced.

ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell says a move to scrap legal costs for vulnerable Canberrans will ease the pain of a looming funding crisis for community legal centres.

ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell says a move to scrap legal costs for vulnerable Canberrans will ease the pain of a looming funding crisis for community legal centres.

Photo: Darren Pateman

Mr Corbell said the move made the ACT the first jurisdiction to automatically exempt Commonwealth concession card holders from liability for court and tribunal fees, levelling the playing field for vulnerable Canberrans to access justice.

He said the change was in line with the Productivity Commission's recommendation on court fee waivers in its 2014 Access to Justice Arrangements report.

"As of this week some of Canberra's most vulnerable people will have access to justice they might not have otherwise been able to obtain," Mr Corbell said.

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"In considering the findings of the Access to Justice Arrangements report, the government has found that by providing better access to justice for vulnerable citizens we are empowering people and strengthening the community."

Canberra Community Law and the Women's Legal Centre clients will also be exempt from court and tribunal costs, while Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT clients can continue to access free legal resources.

Mr Corbell said the exemptions, which quietly came into place on Thursday, were expected to be available to about 15 per cent of the ACT's population.

The announcement was welcomed by ACT Law Society president Martin Hockridge, who said the organisation "very much supports" measures which improved access to justice.

"Anything that allows people who are in fairly straitened circumstances, or on lower socioeconomic rung, to get to court to have their matters heard is a good initiative."

He said the move could also save legal practitioners time, money and resources seeking fee exemptions.

Mr Corbell said the announcement would alleviate some of the concern among the legal fraternity surrounding the federal government's decision to slash funding for community legal centres by 30 per cent from 2017.

Canberra lawyers rallied this week in support of a national "Legal Aid Matters" campaign, which sought to put pressure on the major political parties to commit to reversing cuts and injecting new money into services ahead of the federal election.

Successive federal governments have cut hundreds of millions of dollars from legal aid services, placing them under significant pressure across all states and territories, including the ACT.

In 2014, the Productivity Commission recommended that $200 million a year in interim funding was needed to fill service gaps.

Federal Attorney-General George Brandis​​ last month said in response that the government was committed to doing what it could to increase funding "in a tight fiscal environment".

Mr Corbell said the ACT government was committed to managing Commonwealth funding and service planning to support community legal centres as they weathered the planned funding cuts.

"Improving access to justice continues to be a priority for the ACT Government," Mr Corbell said.

"During the last financial year alone, the ACT Government provided more than $1.177 million to a broad range of legal services to make it easier for all Canberrans to access justice."

The new exemptions operate alongside the existing fee waiver application system for people who don't hold the specified Commonwealth concession cards.

Megan Gorrey is a reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald. She was previously a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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