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Research Report: Access to justice roundtable
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Access to justice roundtable  ( 2003 )  Cite this report

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The Access to Justice Roundtable was an innovative and lively forum and seemed well received by those who participated. Much of the success of the day can be attributed to the willingness of the participants to bring their knowledge and experience to the task of considering barriers to accessing justice and their concerted efforts in thinking strategically and cooperatively about ways to address those barriers.

The papers presented over the course of the day and the working groups in the afternoon met along some common themes. There were attempts to make the phrase ‘access to justice’ meaningful, to be clear about the difference between it and ‘access to courts’ and to recognise the limitations of the court system. Alternative dispute resolution mechanisms came up in many discussions as providing more avenues to justice for disadvantaged groups than the courts.

A clear message throughout the day was that ‘one size does not fit all’. Community workers, lawyers and policy makers generally agreed that, in order to improve access to justice for socially and economically disadvantaged people, local and culturally sensitive solutions based on community participation and leadership are the most successful avenues to follow.

There was also a theme throughout the day about the value of personal contact and building relationships between service providers and disadvantaged groups. This theme arose in discussions of ways to provide information that do not rely on access to phones and the Internet. The replacement of direct personal contact by these means is a problem not only for people who do not have access to telephones and the internet, but also for people who have low literacy, low English language skills, are hearing impaired or are not comfortable using new technologies. This theme was also heard in relation to helping disadvantaged people to have a sense of their right to justice. Participants said that disadvantaged people did not believe that the legal system would be able to help them. They said that these beliefs should be challenged by service providers and advocates. They could also be helped by an emphasis on broader client-focused rather than narrowly problem-focused strategies. People also commented on the need for a central referral service that directs clients to appropriate services. LawAccess was seen as a valuable model.

Calls for more ongoing funds for legal aid and for service providers were heard throughout the day. Some speakers thought that the Legal Aid eligibility rules, which restrict grants of aid to certain areas of law, prevented access to justice for many people. Others noted that there were people who fall through the cracks by earning just over what is allowed by the means test for legal aid, but not enough to pay for legal representation. Richard Funston, however, talked about some impressive initiatives coming from the Legal Aid Commission, such as the pilot duty scheme that has been run out of the Parramatta registry of the Family Court since mid 2002. A number of speakers mentioned that resources had to be used strategically to ensure that effective service providers were employed where they are most needed and for capacity building in disadvantaged areas to reduce the risk of crime and other social problems.

Julian Disney closed the workshop with his reflections on the day and directions for the future. He began by stressing that many good ideas are not new—they may have been proposed in detail in past years and even implemented somewhere. It is important to draw on this past thinking and experience rather than just trying to re-invent the wheel. He also proposed that the highest priority should be given to devising and implementing measures which will help the most disadvantaged sectors of the community (‘the bottom 10 per cent’) rather than, as often happens, ending up helping those in much less dire circumstances.

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and complaints schemes were given some attention in these concluding remarks. Julian Disney praised these alternatives for their promise of speedy and inexpensive resolutions to disputes. He suggested that these benefits often outweighed concerns about making the system ‘the most perfect way to deliver justice’. However, he also expressed some cautions. One was that ADR may not always reduce power imbalances sufficiently to arrive at a genuinely agreed resolution. The second was that the private nature of conciliation and mediation may sometimes impede advancement of the law and broader application of justice. By contrast, proceeding through the courts means that cases are a matter of public record and are capable of becoming precedents for future cases.

Simplicity and strategic action were key directions for the future. People should not overlook the importance of simple measures to deliver information. Professor Disney mentioned basic websites, accessible phone services and central referral points as ways that people might access information in an uncomplicated way. He felt that the access to justice movement could learn from commercial examples of accessing particular populations, especially “point-of-sale” advertising and product placement. Information and services should be provided in such a way that they are readily available when, where and for whom it is needed rather than, for example, in obscure one-off advertisements or inconvenient directories, websites and offices. Trains and buses, milk cartons and fridge magnets, for example, could all be good sites for providing information for disadvantaged groups with legal needs.

Overall, the day provided a platform for knowledge sharing, particularly in relation to the barriers to accessing justice faced by specific groups. With this in mind, the participants had the opportunity to make connections with others and develop partnerships and joint strategies or projects to address these problems.

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Access to justice roundtable: proceedings of a workshop, July 2002, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney, 2003