Desperately seeking legal aid for public interest litigation

The Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department is proposing to merge a raft of financial assistance schemes for individuals and groups seeking legal assistance into a single scheme. They have invited submissions and we (in our capacity as the Australian Network of Environmental Defenders Offices) have made one.

We’ve sought to emphasise the value of public interest environmental litigation and the need for the Commonwealth to better recognise and support this by way of targeted financial assistance.

At the moment, an environmental group or association might qualify for funding under the ‘public interest and test case’ scheme. In practice though, this scheme has rarely been accessed. This has resulted in real impediments to public participation in environmental litigation, with implications for the environment, but also, more broadly, human health, amenity, heritage, and future prosperity. We are asking for public interest environmental litigation to be explicitly recognised under the new scheme, with a merits test that takes into account whether there has been, or is likely to be, an impact on an environment of special significance.

Of course, in the current climate, the fact that a scheme exists at all that might financially support groups or individuals in environmental litigation is a bonus and we must be sure that we retain this at a minimum. As we have seen elsewhere (including as part of the Federal Government’s ‘green tape’ agenda) ‘streamlining’ may well be double-speak for annihilation.

The A-G’s Department claims that this process is geared to ‘enhancing access to justice’. Let’s hope this is the case and we are not facing the prospect of substantially reduced funding for parties seeking financial assistance in legal matters.

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