The Australian government has provided an additional $63.3 million boost for the legal sector to ensure advice and representation can be accessed amid COVID-19 concerns.
Frontline legal services, including legal aid and community legal centres, have received access to the package to ensure legal support is available for Australians who need it during this time.
Legal Aid Sutherland solicitor Michael Ong welcomed the package and said he had struggled to assist clients with advice and representation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The sudden transition to remote processes of courts, firms and public legal services proved most difficult to navigate,” Mr Ong said.
“We [solicitors] deal with very personal matters and the legal system is an extremely daunting process for people not within the industry. With the money, more resources may be placed into technology that can be used by legal services to connect with clients more personally which will certainly improve efficiency of legal advice and emotional support.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced $13.5 million of the package would be used to cover the IT costs of the sector’s transition to online representation and assistance.
“National Cabinet discussed the importance of making sure there is access to legal support for Australians,” Mr Morrison said in a statement.
“National Cabinet agreed that it is important to quickly finalise agreement of the National Legal Assistance Partnership to ensure the continuity for legal services.”
Despite the enthusiasm, Mr Ong warned the boost was only a short-term solution.
“It certainly is equivalent to a drop in the ocean,” he said.
“There was an unprecedented overhaul of the justice system to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and it has sparked a fear that victims and criminals may slip through the cracks simply due to a backlog of cases.”
Illustrated by @BOCSAR, court is an extremely long process. But, it’s also very personal. The longer cases are delayed, financial + emotional burden increases. With COVID-19 expecting to significantly delay cases, is a $63.3m boost to the legal sector enough? @UOWTV #socialj pic.twitter.com/ZD73AZ8Sk0
— joshua campbell (@joshuaheathh) May 6, 2020
Under the COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) Act 2020, courts have moved to operate remotely via video conferencing technology to deal with most matters.
Mr Ong said the changes caused a significant delay in hearings and cases, especially in local courts.
“Cases have become a painfully slow process due to the technological and evidentiary issues courts have to grapple with as they arise,” he said.
“Local courts trudge through the most cases compared to any other court in Australia and when cases are delayed, the safety of victims and individuals are compromised.”