Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2011 Week 01 Hansard (Thursday, 17 February 2011) . . Page.. 282 ..
administering its legislation. The government engaged in an extensive consultation process with the commission and these amendments are based on the commission’s advice. For example, one item relates to the assessment of a person’s eligibility for legal assistance under section 31 of the act.
The current practice of the commission is to apply a two-part means test. The means test measures income and assets. The purpose of inquiring into a person’s income and assets is to ensure that legal aid funds are directed to those who are most unable to pay for help. This is a central component of access to justice. Granting legal assistance on the basis of income and assets helps to give legal representation to people who otherwise would have none.
In some cases, the commission receives applications from people who are capable of paying some amount for representation but who cannot afford the entire cost. The act gives the commission discretion to provide assistance to those people through a cost-sharing arrangement. An amount that the person has to contribute is assessed and legal aid funding provides the balance. Under this system, Legal Aid’s dollars are able to go further. Contributions from people who can afford to pay means more legal aid funds available for those who cannot afford any representation at all.
Under current practice, the commission reviews a person’s financial situation during the course of assistance. This is because, at times, a person may receive a substantial amount of money after the commission’s initial assessment. In that case, adjusting the contribution required is appropriate and fair. Also, particularly in Family Court matters, the commission’s help may result in a direct financial benefit to an assisted person. In that case, a reassessment of the required contribution is also undertaken.
This is the standard practice for Legal Aid here in the ACT and other legal aid commissions around the country. Reassessments have the same purpose as requiring a contribution in the first place—to ensure that, when appropriate, people who receive assistance share the cost with the community.
Based on the advice of the commission and from my department, the bill will make the statutory requirements easier to read. It will also more explicitly direct the commission to consider a person’s ability to pay in assessing and reassessing contributions. The effect of the amendments to section 31 of the act will be to make clear and explicit the commission’s obligation to use its funds only to the extent of genuine financial need. The Assembly’s agreement to this bill will mean that no argument about technicalities will delay the commission in its duty to assess reasonable contributions.
Again, it is important to remember that the bill will not alter anyone’s right to legal assistance. The commission will continue, as it has in the past, to deliver high quality legal assistance to the public. It will also continue in its current methods of assessing and collecting contributions from those who are able to share the costs with the community. What will change is that the law governing these arrangements will be clearer and there will be no doubt about the commission’s responsibilities.
The other amendments in this bill reflect changes in the regulation of the legal profession. The Legal Aid Commission frequently deals with private legal