by Phoebe Churches
The German philosopher Hegel argued in Elements of the Philosophy of Right that all members of civil society are owed a duty by the state to protect their moral equality. In fact modern liberal democracies are characterised by the fundamental principle that their citizens should be equal.
Yet how can this be when some citizens clearly have more money, more opportunity and more resources than others? Well, the Government needs to help level the playing field, of course.
Enter the modern welfare state. This compromise of socialist and liberal values was probably more about avoiding open class conflict than solving Hegel’s dilemma but – until recently at least – all developed nations have also been welfare states to a greater or lesser degree.
Neo-Liberal Economic Policies and the destabilisation of the welfare state
Hegel’s classic liberal democratic welfare state has buckled under the weight of neo-liberal economic policies. Increasingly across developed nations market forces have displaced citizen’s rights to equality. The state has unburdened itself of its welfare responsibilities in favour of market forces and I suggest that this now poses a crucial test of the legitimacy of the modern state into the 21st century.
In the UK David Cameron’s conservative government has introduced the notion of the ‘big society’– a policy framework which has also been referenced by Tony Abbott in Australia. Effectively the outcomes in the UK of ‘big society’ have been – among other things – that in excess of 60,000 public servants have lost their jobs, overall income inequality has grown exponentially and – very relevantly to this issue – there has been a greater than ever burden on volunteers to provide services previously provided by paid staff funded by government.
This type of neo-liberalism ultimately inspires an individualist and depoliticised construction of volunteering. ‘Big society’ style policies consign civic responsibility to the individual citizen – predominantly those willing or forced to volunteer their labour to assisting the disadvantaged. By plugging the gaps left by government people are diverted from the dismantling of the welfare state that ensues when austerity – or in the case of our recent budget – ‘deficit crisis’ banners are hoisted by the government.
So what does this mean for access to justice? Dennis Nelthorpe is Executive Director of Footscray CLC and has many years of experience in the access-to-justice game has suggested that at any given time, on a conservative estimate, around 500 000 Australians are unable to access legal assistance primarily because of the cost. So we are not covering the field on accessible legal services by a long stretch. Yet what does the Government contribute? Dennis provides the following illustration:
Using a commonly stated figure of $250 per hour to value legal work, if we apply this to just one Melbourne CLC where I work, the output of paid legal staff is $3.8 million and volunteer lawyers and pro bono contributions account for an extra $525,000 each year.
This CLC gets around $750,000 in government funding, plus $250,000 from other sources, and yet on these figures deliver four times that amount in legal services alone – not to mention the legal education and law reform services that most CLCS provide on top of that.
The Productivity Commission in its draft report into Access to Justice Arrangements in Australia notes that a number of issues may present particular challenges for people in accessing legal assistance, including language, cultural background, socio-economic circumstances, poor literacy and education or mental and physical wellbeing. Unfortunately it is also true that many of the same people will also be at increased risk of experiencing legal problems and/or they may have more complex needs spanning criminal and civil issues.
In the face of this unmet need and the furious back peddling of the Government away from taking responsibility for assisting these individuals to uphold their legal rights and resolve their civil disputes – how do we plug the gap?
Next time: Volunteering: Altruism, valuable experience or exploitation?
Last time: Volunteering and access to justice – the good, the bad and the ugly.