Readers of Melbourne’s Herald Sun can bet they’re in for a treat when the paper gets talking about “evil”. This time it’s not terrorists, dictators or street gangs. The devil has recruited the latest willing souls from the ranks of a more odious group: Victoria’s criminal defence lawyers.
The Sun’s finger is pointed squarely at those bloody-minded criminal defence lawyers who insist on defending people accused or convicted of a crime. Worse still is that nasty subset – legal aid lawyers who brazenly represent people who can’t afford to pay.
The editors are using an appeal filed by Adrian Bayley to make the case against legal aid assistance. Bayley, convicted of raping and murdering Melbourne woman Jill Meagher, recently lost a legal challenge against his prison sentence. He obtained legal aid to make his application.
“There may no longer be the threat of capital punishment hanging over the heads of these killers, but heads at Victoria Legal Aid should roll. Such decisions are an affront to the memory of murder victims and their families”, the Sun screamed.
The Sun is the hysterical public face of an old campaign. The punitive capacity of the state has been deliberately and rapidly expanded in recent years. Over the same period, funding for free legal assistance has not only failed to keep up but has contracted significantly.
The Abbott government’s first order of business was to slash $42 million from Aboriginal legal aid services. In Victoria, the Law Institute estimates that Legal Aid recorded a loss of $10 million last financial year. Nationally, legal aid commissions require an additional $76 million a year just to be restored to funding levels of the late 1990s.
Compared to the veritable cascade of spending on policing and punishment, these figures are tiny. This year, the Victorian government spent $10.7 million on consultancy fees alone for one new prison. That’s the entire Victoria Legal Aid shortfall spent on reports about plans about a building.
All up, the Victorian government is setting aside $800 million to build a new 1,000 bed prison in Melbourne’s west and to increase the capacity of existing prisons. It has budgeted $30 million for two new country police stations and $78 million for “station facilities” for 900 extra transport police. These amounts represent just a fraction of all “law and order” spending.
Across the country, more people than ever are coming under attack from the state. In Victoria, more charges and longer sentences have pushed up the prison population by 44 percent in the last decade. The government is projecting a further rise of 45 percent over the next decade. The average sentence length increased by nearly 20 percent in 2000-06.
At the same time, legal aid and community legal centres can’t meet ballooning demand for services.
Victoria Legal Aid this year implemented the most sweeping cutbacks in its history. Victims of family violence are one of the most severely impacted groups. Most family law and personal safety order cases are no longer covered. Women are now routinely required to directly confront violent ex-partners in court without any assistance.
In criminal cases, thousands who can’t afford to pay a lawyer are being forced to appear in hearings without representation.
This state of affairs is a direct consequence of the law and order mania that is a feature of both state and federal politics in Australia.