Keynote Speech to NSW Civil Law Conference
****Check Against Delivery****
Thank you Millie (Ingram) for your welcome to country.
I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we meet on today, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respect to their elders past and present.
Thank you Alan (Kirkland, CEO Legal Aid NSW) for your warm welcome and thank you all for the honour giving the keynote speech to your conference.
Legal Aid’s reason for being is an open acknowledgement that the justice system is not accessible to everybody.
Which is why I know you all work very hard – day in day out – to provide disadvantaged Australians with access to justice.
I noted that last year your lawyers made more than 26,000 duty appearances.
And that across all of Legal Aid – your services to clients increased by 8.5 per cent last year, and by 80 per cent over the previous five years.
They are impressive achievements – and not surprising given the pressures that many ordinary Australians are now under.
As lawyers working on the ground – I imagine you often feel like the canaries in the coalmine.
You see the hardships that people are facing every day
You see people’s hardships before others.
And you work to turn people’s life situation around.
But the work that Legal Aid does in supporting financially disadvantaged people, disabled people, women, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, and Aboriginal people cannot be summed up by numbers alone.
Because you give these people something more important than just help.
You give them a voice in the justice system – a voice that the system would otherwise not hear if it was not for your advocacy.
The fact that you are providing people with a voice in tens of thousands of cases a year tells me that the work of Legal Aid has never been more important.
That is why it is a terrific pleasure for me to be here today to talk to you about some of the things the Government is doing to help economically and socially disadvantaged Australians.
And Government measures – that if successful – will make your jobs a little easier.
Each night 105,000 Australians are homeless.
In NSW alone, there were almost 27,400 people sleeping rough on census night 2006.
This is 5,000 more people who are homeless than in 2001.
And while youth homelessness has decreased – the rates of homelessness amongst children is rising.
The Census data also showed us there has been a shift in the type of people becoming homeless – we are seeing more families and couples becoming homeless than we were five years ago.
As many of you would know – people who find themselves homeless are often mainstream Australians who have hit one of life’s brick walls.
They are affected by family violence, separation, unemployment, sickness, chronic illness, drug addictions and gambling.
There is no one path into homelessness – everyone’s story is different.
As Sir William Deane wrote several years ago:
“Homelessness, at its worst, carries with it implications of complete loss – of home, of dignity, of self-esteem and, commonly, of family and even of hope. Recently, we have seen some reference to the homeless of this city as the ‘glass people’ -people other people are prone to look through as though they were not there. But they are there… with their feelings, their needs and their humanity. Indeed, a more acceptable phrase, with all its implications, should be the ‘looking glass people”
While we know the underlying causes of homelessness, there is one other area which can really force people’s hands – the lack of access to legal advice and advocacy.
Failure to access legal assistance can have a profound impact on individuals, families and the broader community.
Minor legal issues such as a tenancy dispute may escalate and cause a whole family to end up on the streets.
Many homeless people have previously had some interaction with the legal system, either as a defendant or victim of violence in a criminal matter.
In 2005 a survey conducted by the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, found that more than three quarters of homeless people interviewed had experienced three or more legal issues.
This is where Legal Aid has such a pivotal role to play.
Your work needs to be part of the wrap around services that people who are homeless – or at risk of homelessness – need, and deserve.
Integrated services, partnerships at every level, increasing access for people to legal advice and services will all help to prevent and break the cycle of homelessness.
Homelessness White Paper
One of the first things we announced in government was a Homelessness White Paper.
The White Paper will include a national action plan to reduce homelessness – agreed to by the States and Territories.
Over the last few months we held consultations around the country – with 1300 people attending. We also received over 600 submissions.
I would like to thank Legal Aid NSW and others here today for their input into this process.
Your submission stressed the importance of protecting and enforcing legal rights of homeless people.
I support your suggestions for reviewing policy to ensure that it does not exacerbate the problems faced by homeless people, and for better integration and co-ordination of services.
The Government has used the information we have gathered during the consultation process to develop a White Paper.
The White Paper – which will be released by the end of the year – will set the agenda for reducing homelessness over the next decade and outline the areas for reform.
The Government’s White Paper is built around three core strategies:
- Turning off the tap – we want to stop people becoming homeless in the first place.
- Breaking the cycle – we want to make sure people do not boomerang back into homelessness by helping them find a genuinely stable home – with the right support – the first time.
- Connecting the service system – we want to improve existing services and make sure they work better together to provide the full gamut of support a homeless person needs to stay housed.
We are now discussing the White Paper with the States and Territories – through the Council of Australian Governments.
But let me be clear – I think the Homelessness White Paper is a once in a generation opportunity to drastically reduce homelessness in Australia.
A Place to Call Home initiative
The White Paper is not the end of the story.
The Government has already made an early down payment through the $150 million A Place to Call Home program.
The program is an immediate response to homelessness – and will help people get the support they need to break the cycle of homelessness and establish a stable home.
A Place to Call Home is a joint initiative with the States and Territories.
The States and Territories will make the program work on the ground by providing funding for land and support services.
We have allocated $38. 8 million to the New South Wales State Government over the five years of the program.
I have already announced A Place to Call Home projects with the Victorian, South Australian and Tasmanian State Governments.
Each of these States is using different projects according to their own needs and circumstances.
More States are following with their announcements over the next month – with projects to provide homes for homeless Australians.
Affordable housing initiatives
The need for more secure and affordable housing is critical if we are to reduce homelessness over the long term.
That is one reason we have $3.7 billion worth of new programs to improve housing affordability – the first major national investment in housing in many years.
Implementation of all of these measures is progressing well.
And of course it is also important to assist people who have a home – but may be at risk of losing it.
That is why the May Budget doubled funding for financial counselling and support services for people experiencing financial stress.
Funding for the Commonwealth Financial Counselling program, a free financial counselling service, has doubled.
This will increase the capacity of existing counsellors and establish new services in high need areas, helping more families who are facing financial stress.
In addition, $10 million will be provided to develop and distribute easy to understand and practical financial management information products, including on issues surrounding mortgages, credit cards, hire purchase usage and similar financial issues.
These products will be designed to assist people in, or at risk of, financial stress, and will be distributed through Centrelink’s Financial Information Service and other providers of financial information and counselling.
I am encouraged to hear that Legal Aid is hoping to establish a Mortgage Stress Initiative, in conjunction with the Consumer Credit Legal Centre – with several solicitors doing case work with families at risk of mortgage repossession.
This is great news – and no doubt a welcome additional service for your clients.
This is great news – and no doubt a desperately welcomed additional service for your clients.
Financial market regulation
Beyond my own portfolio, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) recently announced that financial services should be federally regulated.
This will include the regulation of mortgages and mortgage advice, margin lending, non-bank lenders and trustee companies.
COAG has also agreed that other areas of consumer credit – like credit cards, personal loans, and pay-day lending and micro loans – should be regulated by the Australian Government.
This was welcome news for millions of Australians who use these services regularly. For many practitioners – including lawyers – nationally consistent credit regulation is overdue.
By having clearer, consistent regulation we can also help socially and economically disadvantaged Australians from getting into trouble in the first place.
More details will be released in the coming months about how national regulation of the financial services and consumer industries will be implemented.
Legal assistance programs
As you know, the Government funds many programs to improve access to justice for disadvantaged Australians.
Funding for legal assistance programs administered by the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department in the last financial year (2007-08) was around $300 million.
In April and June this year my colleague, Robert McClelland, the Attorney General, announced the Government’s commitment of an additional $28 million in one-off funding to legal assistance providers – including community legal centres.
The Attorney General understands that community legal centres are a key component of our legal system – providing referral, advice and assistance to more than 350,000 Australians every year.
When the Community Legal Services Program first started in 1978 it received Commonwealth funding of $175,000 for 25 centres.
Thirty years on, the program receives more than $23 million in recurrent funding for 127 centres around the country.
Progress on civil law Issues
The Government believes that no Australian should be financially disadvantaged because of their life choices and the Attorney General has introduced several Bills to ensure this happens.
The Government has changed the law relating to de facto financial matters to alleviate the financial barriers for people who chose not to marry.
Fifteen per cent of Australian couples now live together outside marriage.
So reforms to provide these couples with greater protection were long overdue.
Importantly these reforms will provide greater financial security for women in de facto relationships.
This is of particular importance to vulnerable women, such as those escaping a violent relationship, where financial independence is a significant factor.
Under the new laws, women in de facto relationships will have the same rights as married women.
This will allow them to access resources to resolve financial and child-related matters following a relationship breakdown.
At the same time we have introduced legislation to remove discrimination from a wide range of Commonwealth laws which affect same-sex couples.
The amendments remove discrimination in areas such as social security, taxation, Commonwealth superannuation, Medicare, veteran’s entitlements, workers’ compensation, family law, child support and educational assistance.
We are also taking action to protect the needs of women and children who are victims of violence.
National Council of Violence Against Women
The Prime Minister has appointed a National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.
The Council has been tasked with developing a National Plan to reduce the incidence and impact of domestic and family violence and sexual assault against women and their children.
The Plan will:
- Support women who have been victims of violence.
- Ensure the legal system is effective in handling cases of violence against women.
- End the cycle of violence for future generations.
The Government is strongly committed to the promotion of human rights, both internationally and domestically.
We ratified the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, and we are working towards becoming a party to the Optional Protocols to the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
The Government has also agreed to undertake national consultation on how best to recognise and protect human rights and responsibilities in Australia.
Our social inclusion agenda is about building a society that has a place for all people – including the most marginalised.
Access to justice – including the work that all of you do – is an essential part of that agenda.
Thank you again for inviting me here today and I wish you well for the rest of this conference.