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Justice and disadvantage? Just add rurality….

People living in regional, rural and remote areas face barriers in accessing justice that can lead to life-changing repercussions. Catherine McFaul argues that justice policies need to include a focus on the issues rural and regional people face.

People’s ability to access justice transverses the spectrum of political persuasions, weaving through legislature and systems of government, and influences people’s connection to their community, health and wellbeing, often with life-changing repercussions.

This is particularly so for rural Australians, who face geographic barriers in access to, and administration of, justice.

At the first National Rural Law and Justice Conference, High Court of Australia Chief Justice Robert French noted:

 “…people living in regional Australia face disadvantages and they face difficulties in trying to overcome and mitigate them. The obvious ones are… manifested in the lack of availability and high cost of facilities, goods and services, both public and private including health, housing, education, policing, law and justice”.[1]

So what does this mean in practice, for rural people wanting to access justice?

Firstly, the capacity for rural areas to recruit and retain legal professionals is increasingly difficult, the further the distance from urban epicentres. Basically, there is a shortage of rural lawyers and paralegals.

Similarly to the health profession struggling to recruit and retain rural doctors, allied professionals and nurses, the lack of legal professionals negatively impacts on the capacity to adequately service rural Australia.

Small legal firms in country Australia struggle to stay operating, with an ageing workforce, issues of conflict of interest, and often up to 30-50 per cent of their work forming legal aid or pro bono work for their communities.[2]

Furthermore, rural, regional and remote lawyers are required to specialise in all areas of the law, to be a ‘jack-of-all-trades’. A recent report by the Centre for Rural Regional Law and Justice at Deakin University suggests that this also equates to a ‘master of none’, with substantial overburdens of legal knowledge and complexities required, and a dwindling pool of senior experienced lawyers.[3] It is a vicious circle. Moreover, there is a dearth of professional development opportunities available in rural areas, hampering the capacity of those legal professionals to improve their knowledge and expertise.

Undoubtedly, the ‘tyranny of distance’ means rural Australians are physically separated from justice services to varying degrees. At the most obvious level it means people may need to travel huge distances to access legal advice, see a lawyer and/or attend court. The financial cost of additional travel to access justice can add to economic hardship and compound the difficulties in affording legal representation. It is certainly not uncommon to hear stories of people travelling 500kms to attend court, only to have their driver’s licence suspended.

Reasonable, certainly. But…how do they get home, how do they go to work, how do they get recompense?

Conversely, the capacity for rural, regional and remote Australia to offer localised community and support services to divert people from, and rehabilitate people for, the justice system range from  sparse to completely non-existent.  In 2000 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has stated:

“If family support services are thin on the ground in major centres, they may be practically non-existent in rural parts of Australia…the challenging social and economic circumstances in these communities no longer provides the safety net it once did for people when they are in crisis”.[4]

Arguably things haven’t changed much in almost a decade and a half.

Aside from a lack of services including transport, welfare and family support, court-based services, mediation, accommodation, drug and alcohol services, and vocational education and training; the more transformative services requirements to address cross cultural barriers, language issues and interpreting services, lower levels of educational attainment, disability, and mental health, cannot be addressed.  This is particularly problematic for young people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people for whom English is a second language, who disproportionately feature in the punitive end of the justice system as a result.

Rural Australia also faces efficiency issues around the provision of justice services that compound issues of disadvantage. Unlike their urban counterparts, rural Australia is often serviced by circuit courts and circuit magistrates/ judges.  Like a music tour, the dates are set, with short notice and windows of opportunity to attend. There is potentially no extension of time to properly prepare. Delays are not welcomed by courts, even though adjournments may be granted. This is extremely difficult particularly for Family Law matters where the ‘best interests of the child’ are time constrained.

As well, rationalised rural services may not offer adequate facilities for the parties or matters involved. For example, there may be just one waiting room for parties involved in a family violence matter. Often women can be found ‘out the back of the court’ with their support worker, terrified to wait; or they don’t attend – they are simply too afraid. There are few, if any, specialist services beyond the metropolitan fringe.

There is a tendency for the broad community, and resultant public policy, to be cavalier about disadvantage – preferring instead to blame individual pathology. A climate of victim blaming persists.

However, the reality is that service provision, premised on per capita equity, inevitably means small, rural communities become even more isolated and disadvantaged. The justice system is one of the principle mechanisms to address inequalities, but the balance between economic efficiencies and public provision is constantly in a state of flux.[5]

If, as a nation, we are endeavouring to ensure equal access to justice and potentially, have mature conversations about justice reinvestment opportunities, significant work must be done to address the intersectionality of rural disadvantage.

It is in this space that the new National Rural Law and Justice Alliance is hoping to affect real and permanent change. The Alliance is an independent, unified voice for rural law and justice in Australia.

Fundamental to the organisation is the belief that all Australians should have equal access to justice, regardless of geography. We work with institutions to strengthen the focus on rural law and justice issues, and to support and help coordinate their work with this intent. Readers with an interest in ensuring rural justice are invited to find out more at www.nrlja.org.au/membership/.

National Rural Justice Alliance

Catherine McFaul is the Executive Officer of the National Rural Law and Justice Alliance. She can be contacted at cath.mcfaul@deakin.edu.au

[1] C.J French, Law and Justice Outside the CBD. Deakin Law Review, Vol 16 (1) 1-11, 2010.

[2] Law Council of Australia, Recruitment and Retention of Lawyers in Rural, Regional and Remote Areas, Canberra, 2009.

[3] L Kyle, R Coverdale and T Powers, Conflicts of Interest in Victorian Rural and Regional Legal Practice, Deakin University School of Law Centre for Rural regional Law and Justice, Geelong, 2014.

[4] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bush Talks, Canberra, 2000.

[5] R Coverdale, Postcode Justice: Rural and Regional Disadavantage in the Administration of the Law in Victoria, Deakin University School of Law, Centre for Rural Regional Law and Justice, Geelong, 2011.