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Productivity Commission reports on access to justice

The information presented below is a summary of the April 2014 Productivity Commission’s draft report on access to justice arrangements. The report was prepared for further public consultation and input. Those interested in expressing their opinions on the proposals can do so here:

1. Consumers lack of knowledge about whether and what action to take

The commission acknowledged the lack of information individuals possess on their legal rights and responsibilities. This includes when a legal problem arises, what action can be taken, who to consult and when to consult them. The commission acknowledged the existence of organisations designed to provide legal information and referral services, however it also noted how this has contributed to further fragmentation and duplication.

The commission proposed that each state and federal jurisdiction should have one central source of legal information. This source of information would encompass advice and referrals. The commission acknowledged that the organisation charged with this task would need large public exposure and sufficient resources to provide services across a range of media. This would include telephone, online and print.

This is said to benefit the community by ensuring that individuals and businesses are able to easily access concise and relevant information to determine whether they have a legal cause of action. This proposed reform is also said to better prioritise funding areas through consolidations of current services. This will address the acknowledged fragmentation and duplication of services and information provided to individuals and businesses.

In submissions made by Legal aid Australia, focus was shifted towards the need to ensure the availability of legal services to all members of society. This of course is a monumental task, given the vast number of people requiring differing legal advice. The issue of groups who do not fall within legal aid, and yet cannot afford legal services is also a significant problem that may not be addressed by this one-stop shop proposal.

2. Consumers find it hard to shop around

The proposed reform to combat the lack of knowledge consumers possess in regards to their legal rights and responsibilities was followed by a proposal to centralise legal services online. The reasons for this proposed reform were the irregularity, subjectivity and uncertainty as to the nature of legal services. This means that consumers find it difficult to compare and contrast different service providers to suit their claim and budget. This took cost estimates into account, acknowledging that often these up front assessments can be inaccurate or unreasonable.

The commission suggested a central online portal which contains billing information and informs of any changes or additional services that may be required. This is said to better inform consumers of the expected and ongoing costs involved in engaging legal services. Access to this information is also believed to improve choice and reduce transaction costs. An added advantage of regulatory change is also believed to improve competitive function of the legal industry, reducing costs for consumers.

In a public hearing, Rhonda Payget from Women’s Legal Centre criticised this proposal on the basis that there are a number of groups in the community who will not fit within the all access model and will not enter the legal system in that way. This often includes the most disadvantaged clients who access justice through referrals from community workers. The privacy and vulnerability of clients was also criticized through this mode of one stop shop for legal services.

3. Judging quality of legal services

The commission acknowledges that individuals and businesses who do not often employ legal services find it difficult to assess the quality of services provided. This in turn is linked to an understanding of the legal services complaints mechanisms.

It was proposed that alongside the continued high standard of training and entry requirements, profession-specific restrictions such as those on advertising should be removes. Furthermore, complaints bodies across all jurisdictions should be regulated to ensure consistent investigatory and disciplinary powers. By providing consumers with an effective and consolidated avenue for redress this will ensure a consistently high standard of legal services, whilst allowing complaints bodies to efficiently and effectively exercise their power. This was also said to potentially lower the regulatory burden on legal professionals.

Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: September 2, 2014.

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