Liberal and Labor state Attorneys-General have banded together to warn federal counterpart George Brandis that a "crisis" in legal assistance funding will hurt the most vulnerable members of the community, and that further cuts to legal services are "short-sighted and ill-conceived".
In a blistering letter sent to Senator Brandis on Thursday and signed by the first law officers of all states and territories, the Attorneys-General state that women and children who are victims of domestic violence and Indigenous Australians are among those who will be most affected by cuts to legal funding.
"The crisis in legal assistance funding has reached such a level that we, the undersigned Attorneys-General, need to take this step to urge you to reconsider current proposals for the new national funding agreement," the letter states.
"We are united in our concern about proposed cuts in funding to Legal Aid Commissions, Community Legal Centres, the Aboriginal Legal Services as well as a range of changes to administrative arrangements.
"These proposals will affect the most vulnerable members in our community, including foremost women and children who are victims of or at risk of family violence, as well as Indigenous Australians. It is difficult to reconcile these actions with the Prime Minister's recent recognition of the importance of tackling domestic and family violence and closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians".
Further cuts could "set us back decades", the eight law officers, including Brad Hazzard of NSW, Victoria's Martin Pakula and the ACT's Simon Corbell have written.
The Productivity Commission last year called for an additional $200 million a year for national legal assistance services. The Attorneys-General say such a step would ultimately deliver savings to taxpayers. They also say that the Commonwealth making further cuts to the sector is "unacceptable" and seek a commitment of "no further funding cuts to Legal Aid Commissions, Community Legal Centres and the Aboriginal Legal Service".
In the lead-up to the May budget, the states have asked for proposed funding allocations by no later than March 31, good faith negotiations and increases that reflect population increases.
About $15 million was cut from legal aid in the 2014-15 budget and community legal services saw a decline in funding of about $9 million over four years.
Since coming to power, the Coalition had laid out plans to cut more than $40 million overall from the legal assistance sector over the next four years. Successive federal governments' contributions to legal aid commissions have fallen every year since 1997 from about 50 per cent to a third of all funding.
Mr Hazzard told Fairfax Media: "A just society demands that people have access to the law.
"All we're asking is for the federal Treasury to realise that they have a role in this. It's simply undeniable."
Asked if the state and territory attorneys-general had put their case to Treasurer Joe Hockey, Mr Hazzard said, "That's not for us to do, it's for the federal attorney general to do".
Mr Hazzard said the High Court case of Dietrich v The Queen clearly set out that courts could halt criminal trials where the accused was unrepresented.
This had a flow-on effect to taxpayers because accused people were left "sitting in jails which could be costing an average of $160,000 per year".
Victoria's Attorney-General Martin Pakula said it would be "totally incongruous" of Prime Minister Tony Abbott to talk about action on family violence while cutting the crucial legal assistance funding.
Mr Pakula said Victoria the state already received the lowest per capita share of funding under the current National Partnership Agreement for legal assistance services, which was why Victoria Legal Aid has one of the most stringent means tests in Australia.
"If Tony Abbott and George Brandis are serious about tackling family violence, they'll stop slashing funding for the legal support services that need it most," Mr Pakula said.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the federal parliament had shown "its best side this week with a commitment to tackle the scourge of domestic violence ... but all the fine words in the world amount to nothing if they are not backed up with action".
"Our systems should be built upon one fundamental principle: when forced to court seeking protection from family violence, you and your children should never walk alone," he said.
"I call upon the Prime Minister to urgently reverse these cuts and confirm the continuation of the government's support for these vital services."
A spokesman for Senator Brandis said he was considering the letter from his state and territory counterparts.
"The government is committed to protecting the most vulnerable members of our community and will continue to provide a very substantial amount of funding for legal assistance," he said.
Funding would be considered as part of the 2015 federal budget process, he said.
The president of the NSW Bar Association, Jane Needham, SC, acknowledged the Commonwealth had recently reversed some cuts to a legal aid fund for expensive federal criminal cases but said a "a long term solution to the legal aid crisis" was required.
"The federal government needs to meet its responsibilities under the Commonwealth/state legal aid agreement and provide the $200 million in funding for legal aid recommended by the Productivity Commission in its recent Access to Justice report," Ms Needham said.
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