Equal before the law but access not so equal

As a society, we place great importance on ensuring our citizens have a roof over their head, food on the table, and when they are ill or injured, access to appropriate medical treatment. And so it should be. But we don’t give legal rights the same respect.

Elliston District Council chairman Kym Callaghan

Elliston District Council chairman Kym Callaghan

In a free and democratic society all citizens are meant to be equal before the law. But not everyone can afford lawyers. The truth is our justice system is too expensive for too many.

Community legal centres struggle on the smell of an oily rag to even up the ledger.

They offer free legal advice to people on issues as diverse as family violence, welfare, employment and tenancy. They already turn thousands of people away each year due to resource constraints.

The state government has withdrawn funding from three community legal services, all of which provide services to the country: the Welfare Rights Legal Centre, which provides expert social security law assistance, and community legal centres in Mount Gambier and in Berri.

There is no centre on the Eyre Peninsula – which is concerning in itself – but the Welfare Rights Centre is active on the Eyre Peninsula, providing free legal advice and representation to clients facing Centrelink problems. Its clients are the most vulnerable in our community: the terminally ill, the systematically abused, the significantly mentally ill, people with disabilities, vulnerable minors and young people escaping horrifically violent homes and people leaving domestic violence relationships.

The centre advises and represents social security recipients and has run numerous outreach services in regional and remote areas including Ceduna, Port Lincoln and the APY lands.

These services have been developed over many years. Not only did the Welfare Rights Centre intend to continue this service but had begun developing increased service in regional and remote South Australia.

This level of expertise does not exist anywhere else in South Australia and it will be lost if the closure goes ahead on July 1.

The inability to get timely access to secure income support is often at the root of other legal needs, including housing, credit and debt and family violence.

If we aspire to be a society where people are equal before the law, these are services we cannot do without.

Kym Callaghan

Elliston District Council chairman