Professional assistance may be necessary for people navigating Australia's legal system. But with lawyers charging hundreds of dollars in hourly fees, not everyone can afford to pursue justice. However, you may be able to access free help through legal aid.
People who need legal assistance can seek help from the legal aid commission in their state or territory or go to community legal centres or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.
The National Legal Assistance Partnership 2020-25 will deliver over $2.3 billion of Australian Government funding to all states and territories for the legal assistance sector, which has been chronically underfunded over many years.
- Legal aid providers decide about the form of assistance on a case-to-case basis
- To be eligible for Legal Aid grants one must satisfy the means and merits tests and meet the relevant legal aid commission's guidelines
- The National Legal Assistance Partnership 2020-25 will provide $2.3 billion funding to deliver legal aid
People seeking legal assistance may require a range of services, including legal information and referral services, advice on a specific legal matter, procedures and processes of the court system, dispute resolution and court representation etc.
Different organisations provide different levels of legal help, each with its own eligibility criteria.
Legal Aid Commissions
Legal Aid commissions provide free legal information, including free brochures, information sessions or legal advice over the phone.
If you need legal representation, you will need to apply for a legal aid grant and you must satisfy the Means and Merits tests. Legal aid commissions in different jurisdictions may have different eligibility criteria.
The Means and Merit tests look at your income and assets and your legal issue – whether it’s a criminal, civil or family law matter.
Sydney University's Law Professor Simon Rice says most middle-income earners are not eligible for Legal Aid grants.
He analysed Australia's National Legal Aid Statistics between July 2020 and May 2021 and found that 65 per cent of these grants went to men and only 33 per cent went to women.
Community Legal Centres
Across the country, 170 independent, not-for-profit community legal centres provide free legal help, including information, referrals, legal education, advice, casework and representation services.
CEO of the national peak body Community Legal Centres Australia Nassim Arrage says community legal centres are embedded in the community and have a really strong network with the local community services.
On our website, people can access directory of all the community legal centres in Australia.
Mr Arrage says community legal centres decide the kind of legal assistance they can provide on a case-by-case basis.
However, he points out that everybody who contacts community legal centres will at least get help in legal information and guidance for self-help resources.
"The more that a person has, what we call, indicators of disadvantage, the more we are likely to offer ongoing help. So, it might be an experience of family violence, not being able to speak or understand English, having a disability, being older and frailer, being under 18. All of those kinds of factors, have an impact on our decision," he says.
Women's Legal Service Victoria provides free legal services to women experiencing disadvantages to address legal issues arising from relationship breakdown or violence.
CEO Helen Matthews says that due to limited funding and training and the development and policy work that Women’s Legal Service Victoria does, they can only provide legal advice and representation to a small number of women.
A big part of of our work is duty lawyer work at the Melbourne Magistrate's court.
Across the country, at local courts and tribunals, anyone can approach a duty lawyer for assistance if they have a matter at court that day and do not have a lawyer.
Their service is free. However, duty lawyers can only provide limited help on the day. If your matter is complicated, they may be able to only help you move your court appearance to a later date.
A person appearing before a criminal court in Australia must be represented by a legal professional. In family and civil law matters, you may choose to represent yourself.
Sydney University's Law Professor Simon Rice says that although courts create a manageable environment for self-represented parties, you still need technical legal knowledge to prepare court documents and speak to the court and tribunal.
Help doesn’t go very far; you are up against a hostile opponent and a technical legal system.
Professor of Law Dr Jeff Giddings says that Monash University runs a Family Law Assistance Program designed to assist self-represented individuals in Family Law litigation.
Other Australian law schools offering clinic-based experience include Griffith University, Deakin University, Bond University, and more.
In law clinics, law students provide knowledge and support about the legal process and court procedures for free. These clinics work under the supervision of a qualified and experienced lawyer.
There is also a wide range of websites for free legal information to help you navigate the court system.
You may also be able to find a lawyer to represent you pro-bono (without charging a fee).
For information about pro bono services in your state or territory, visit the Australian Pro Bono Centre website.