The Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission has said it can no longer meet the demands of remote communities, sparking concerns Aboriginal people may be forced to represent themselves in court.The commission’s announcement today that it can no longer provide services in remote areas comes amid concerns about how cuts to Commonwealth funding for Indigenous programs will affect frontline services such as youth justice advocacy and domestic violence prevention.
The NT’s other provider of legal representation in remote areas, the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), said it could not represent all clients due to a conflict of interest, and this could mean Aboriginal people went without legal representation.
“It’s just unrealistic to expect that people in remote communities are going to be able to adequately represent their interests; they need to be represented, they need access to good legal advice, and that’s obviously not going to be available,” NAAJA’s principal legal officer Jonathon Hunyor said.
“It’s likely we’ll see large numbers of Aboriginal people in remote communities being unrepresented, and that’s going to create a real problem for the court, particularly because a lot of people don’t speak English as a second language in remote communities and really aren’t familiar with the court system, so they’re just not going to be able to represent themselves.
“As a lawyer you’ve got an obligation to represent the interests of every client to the best of your ability, and sometimes if you’ve got two clients they have conflicting interests and you can’t represent them both fairly.
“For example, we may be representing a person who is a victim of an assault, and if the defendant comes to us for help we can’t help them.”
Mr Hunyor said Aboriginal people in remote communities deserved appropriate legal representation.
“The Northern Territory Government have got to step up and properly fund legal services in remote communities,” he said.
NT Attorney-General John Elferink said the Government would not make any promises but that problems would be assessed as they arose.
“If a pressing need is made out… then that’s something that I will take to government,” he said.
“We will see with further negotiations with Legal Aid where we land on this space… but of course we have to live within the resources of government as well.”
Stopping remote services will ‘clog up courts’: Law Society NT
President of the Law Society Northern Territory, Tass Liveris, said the Commission’s decision to stop services in remote communities would cause chaos for courts in the Territory.
“It will lead to more un-represented people, it will clog up the courts with cases and cause longer delays, it will lead to less just outcomes including more people going to prison and more people going to prison for longer periods of time,” Mr Liveris said.
“This all costs the tax payer more money and costs society as a whole.
Mr Liveris backed NAAJA’s call for more government funding.
“The amount of money to keep legal aid operating properly is not there…so a top up payment of around a million dollars this financial year will help restore legal aid services for Territorians,” Mr Liveris said.
The Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission refused to comment.