Housing stability is a major factor in reducing contact with the criminal justice system. Investments in programs for the homeless, children in out of home care, those with mental health issues, domestic and family violence victim-survivors and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is a positive step.
Access to justice could become easier for the state’s most vulnerable, with additional funding allocated in the NSW Budget to expand the reach of specialised services and modernise legal assistance application technology.
Treasurer Daniel Mookey handed down the Minns Government’s first budget on Tuesday, with major wins for essential services including teachers and healthcare workers, relief for first home buyers in stamp duty concessions, and slashing some spending excesses on infrastructure.
Where the NSW legal profession is concerned, an additional $97 million over four years has been pledged to bolster courts and tribunals, Legal Aid NSW and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Included in the investment is $8.1 million to support and expand Redfern Legal Centre’s financial abuse service statewide, so that people experiencing “money problems or family law issues as a result of financial abuse” can access free legal assistance.
The Budget also includes an additional $9.5 million for Legal Aid NSW to implement a new platform that will make applying for legal assistance “quicker and easier”. The money will allow the organisation to use the latest technology to better manage applications and support private practitioners who deliver these services to disadvantaged clients.
Attorney General Michael Daley said this investment will help “prevent small problems from escalating into bigger ones” and ease pressure on courts.
“Almost 61 per cent of Legal Aid clients live in regional NSW, and intensifying cost-of-living pressures mean the need for access to legal assistance has increased. The service helps with criminal matters, family law issues, and civil law matters including housing, income support or access to health and disability support,” Daley said.
Better funding for legal assistance is a priority for President of the Law Society of NSW Cassandra Banks.
“The increase of 14 per cent for Legal Aid NSW appears generous. However, increases in staff costs, while reasonable, may well consume a significant portion of this funding, while limiting increased to access to justice,” Banks said.
Banks welcomed more investment to help disadvantaged people in need of housing stability, and a substantial commitment to improving Closing the Gap targets, but said she hopes the “additional 97 million over four years” will fund more than just overdue salaries.
“Housing stability is a major factor in reducing contact with the criminal justice system. Investments in programs for the homeless, children in out of home care, those with mental health issues, domestic and family violence (DFV) victim-survivors and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is a positive step,” Banks said.
“The Law Society has consistently supported measures to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, so the $131 million investment in initiatives of the Coalition of Peaks towards the National Agreement on Closing the Gap is also welcome.
The NSW justice system includes almost 400 judicial officers across NSW Courts and Tribunals, as well as the 2,500 staff who support them. Collectively, these courts and tribunals hear and manage more than 300,000 matters a year, including criminal and civil proceedings and appeals.
Programs such as Circle Sentencing and the Youth Koori Court have also been expanded in the Budget, with the aim of reducing the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the justice system.
Further, Banks said additional funding for the justice system “will be needed very soon” in the face of a growing population and “slowly criminal finalisations”.
“The Law Society looks forward to measures to address increased demand and workload in our justice system and recognises further significant investments to increase judicial resources and improve court infrastructure are difficult in the present budgetary environment,” Banks said.
“As the Budget moves back into surplus, the Law Society and its members will continue to advocate for a properly resourced justice system, which is essential to the continuing stability of a democratic society.”
Budget investment in the justice system includes:
- $3.45 million to support the Drug Court expansion, including funding to the District Court, ODPP and Legal Aid NSW
- $7.5 million to ensure that a specialist DV support worker is available at every local courthouse that hears domestic violence matters and to support a program that embeds specialist support workers within select police stations.
- Cybersecurity modernisation and systems improvement for several agencies within the Dept of Communities and Justice
- Funding to address increased demand and workload in the justice system, in both civil and criminal matters
- Funding to support wage increases for public servants.