Lawyers in Australia are working for free more than ever before with pro bono legal work at an all-time high.
Pro bono legal services have increased by almost 10 per cent from 2014 to 2016 according to the Fifth National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey.
On average, lawyers did almost 35 hours of pro bono work each in 2016.
A key factor driving that increase is a rise in demand from asylum seekers and refugees.
In 2016 ‘immigration’ ranked third in the list of areas of law where the most pro bono work was done, moving up from 12th in 2014.
Sarah Dale is a principal solicitor at community legal centre, Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS) and said the rise in demand for their services was impacted by government cuts to community legal centres in 2014.
"Before 2014 there was funded legal assistance for anyone who arrived in Australia by boat,” she said.
“Now that there is no longer that funding, we're now seeing more and more people come to RACS needing that assistance to apply for protection because they are unable to afford a private migration agent."
Ms Dale says pro bono work has been crucial for RACS to be able to meet increased demand.
"Given the massive cuts that we experienced, there is no way we could have met the need without pro bono support over the last couple of years.
“It's really reassuring because we just see more and more pro bono work available.
“However it's important to note that despite all this incredible pro bono support we still need funding."
Despite over 370,000 hours of pro bono legal work being completed in 2016, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Pro Bono Centre, John Corker said there is no substitute for government funded legal aid.
"There is a limited capacity to do that [pro bono work] as well,” he said.
“It's not a substitute for adequately funding legal aid and community legal centres and there are signs in this survey that for some of the better performers and the longer serving firms that have got advanced pro bono programs, they are getting close to capacity."
More cuts to community legal services on the horizon
Federal funding cuts to community legal centres are scheduled on July 1 this year, and Ms Dale said this means more people will be competing for limited pro bono legal services.
In March, Labor and the Greens co-sponsored a Senate motion urging the government to continue funding for the sector.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said in a press conference in Parliament House that community legal centres serve the most disadvantaged people across the country.
"Community legal centres serve the most disadvantaged people across Australia,” Mr Dreyfus said.
“They serve people who cannot afford to see a lawyer, they serve people who do not qualify for Legal Aid."
Greens Senator Nick McKim also slammed the government for the impending cuts to community legal centres.
"Some of our most vulnerable in the country are going to miss out on access to justice as a result of this government's cruel and callous cuts to CLCs,” Mr McKim said.
But the Liberal Senator James McGrath responded in parliament, saying the government is still committed to community legal centres.
"The government is committed to access to justice and supports the important work of the community legal assistance sector,” he said.
“In a tight fiscal environment, the government is providing $1.6 billion for legal assistance services including community legal centres.
“Under the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services, services are directed to those who need them most.
“Funding for community legal centres is not a matter for the Commonwealth alone. Investment from the states and territories is also crucial."
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