PILCH has made a number of submissions on issues relating to access to justice, as set out below.
Prisoner Issues Scoping Project
We are always monitoring requests for legal assistance. Where we see trends we consider how we will respond and whether we are able to provide more substantive or structured assistance to a particular client group or in a particular area of law.
Following a significant increase in requests for legal assistance from prisoners and the partial closure of the Prisoners' Legal Service Victoria (PLSV) PILCH conducted a research project in 2010-2011 in relation to civil law legal assistance to prisoners. The Prisoners' Legal Need Scoping Project found that there was significant unmet legal need for civil law services for prisoners, particularly after the partial closure of the PLSV. The Project Report made a number of other recommendations around prisoners' access to legal information and to lawyers and lawyers' access to resources and training on substantive law prisoner issues.
In response to that Report PILCH is engaging with stakeholders to consider establishing a targeted legal assistance program to increase pro bono civil law legal assistance to prisoners.
National Legal Profession Reform
In August 2010 PILCH made a submission to the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) National Legal Profession Reform Taskforce. The Reform is intended to harmonise disparate regimes in Australia for the regulation of lawyers and legal practice.
The PILCH submission addresses opportunities for pro bono and volunteer legal practice under the reform, particularly for corporate, government and non-practicing lawyers. PILCH commends the Taskforce’s draft legislation for formally authorising all practicing lawyers to volunteer at a community legal service, and for establishing a stand-alone volunteer practicing certificate. PILCH recommended further reform to allow all practitioners to engage in general pro bono legal practice, and for a stand-alone pro bono practicing certificate. The submission draws on case studies, PILCH’s experience of capacity for pro bono legal practice and access to justice principles.
Unfair Terms in Insurance Contracts
In May 2010, PILCH made a submission the Corporations and Financial Services Division of the Federal Treasury in response to the Unfair Terms in Insurance Contracts – Options Paper, which was released for public comment on 17 March 2010. PILCH’s submission was informed by the many requests for assistance it receives from consumers complaining of harsh or unfair terms in insurance contracts. In making its submission, PILCH detailed a number of case studies indicative of these enquiries. PILCH recommended that insurance contracts should be exposed to the unfair terms regime contained in the new national consumer law (comprising the Trade Practices Amendment (Australian Consumer Law) Act (No. 1) 2010, and the Trade Practices Amendment (Australian Consumer Law) Bill (No. 2) 2010). This would ensure consistency with the consumer protections afforded in respect of financial and other services. PILCH recommended against extension, or partial extension, of the current provisions in the Insurance Contracts Act 1984, which exclude certain protections afforded in external legislation.PILCH considered and endorsed the opinions and recommendations expressed in the submission of the Consumer Action Law Centre.
Inquiry into the effectiveness of Commonwealth House Standing Committees
In August 2009, PILCH made a submission to the inquiry of the Standing Committee on Procedure into the effectiveness of Commonwealth House Standing Committees.
In its submission, PILCH outlined the need to improve Parliament’s engagement with human rights and how House Standing Committees could effectively assist Australia meet its human rights obligations. The submission also examined the imperatives for increasing efficiency and accountability of House Standing Committees. PILCH broadly made two sets of recommendations to the Standing Committee on Parliamentary Procedure, name that:
- there be established a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights which would lead parliamentary engagement with human rights issues; and
- amendments to the Standing Orders be made to avoid duplication of effort and increase accountability, such as requiring committees to identify and consider previous reviews on similar topics and inclusion of mechanisms to track the government’s response to recommendations.
Review of the General Insurance Code of Practice
In July 2009, PILCH and the Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre made a joint submission to the Insurance Council of Australia’s review of the General Insurance Code of Practice. The review considered in part whether the Code improves consumer confidence in the general insurance industry.
PILCH recommended that the Code be repealed. Its recommendations included:
- expansion of the provisions applicable to, or enforceable by third parties, including those that relate to claims and complaints handling,
- the itemisation of specific factors that would require an insurer to consider alternative repayment terms, and adoption of new provisions that would require an insurer to consider debt waiver in particular circumstances, and
- improved training of staff, advisors and collection agents.
Commonwealth Government Legal Services Review
In May 2008 the federaley-General announced he was considering a number of initiatives to reform Commonwealth legal services. A key initiative is the development of a standard form request for tender and deed of standing offer.
PILCH submitted that the Federal Government has a responsibility to promote and support the professionalism of pro bono legal services in the private sector through policy designed to increase socially responsible outcomes. In particular, PILCH recommended that the Attorney-General introduce a mandatory contractual requirement that each legal firm that is a participant of the Commonwealth legal scheme must “commit to provide pro bono services of at least 5% of the value of the legal fees they derive under the panel arrangements”.
This recommendation draws on the successful implementation of similar requirements that the Victorian Government has imposed on law firms that are selected as providers on the Victorian Government legal service panel. PILCH also recommended adopting definitions of pro bono services and approved causes that are consistent with the Victorian scheme.
Victorian Parliament’s Vexatious Litigants Inquiry
In June, 2008, PILCH and the Human Rights Law Resource Centre (HRLRC) made a submission to the Victorian Law Reform Comittee's inquiry into vexatious litigants. The submission noted that the current vexatious litigant laws strike the correct balance between the right to access the courts and the need to protect other parties and the justice system from vexatious litigation.
The submission recommended, inter alia:
- exercising caution with respect to attempts to broaden vexatious ligiants' laws,
- ensuring vexatious litigant laws are compatible with the Charter of Human Righs and Responsibilities 2006 (Vic.)