Legal Aid Funding
LEGAL AID FUNDING
The Hon. HELEN SHAM-HO: My question without notice is directed to the Attorney General, Minister for Industrial Relations and Vice-President of the Executive Council. In yesterday's adjournment debate the Hon. Jan Burnswoods said that the Legal Aid Commission does not provide aid in custody disputes where the woman initiates the action. I was unaware that was the case. Will the Minister explain why that is so?
The Hon. J. P. HANNAFORD: The matter of legal aid has been raised a number of times in question time during the past few days, and particularly in a question asked yesterday by the Hon. Jan Burnswoods, which she followed up with comment during the adjournment debate. In that debate she said that the Legal Aid Commission does not provide aid in custody disputes initiated by the woman. I should inform the House that, as usual, the comments made by the Hon. Jan Burnswoods were wrong. As members have experienced on a number of occasions, the honourable member made a comment which was wrong, and wrong again. She should check the facts herself and not take the dump from one of her colleagues in the other House, or use better informants. Legal aid is available to men and women in custody disputes, subject to their meeting the usual requirements of the means and merit test.
The Hon. Virginia Chadwick: She was quite wrong.
The Hon. J. P. HANNAFORD: She was totally wrong on this issue. There is no restriction on the availability of legal aid when a woman initiates an action, as the honourable member suggested. The only restriction on the availability of legal aid in custody proceedings is that the parties must have been separated for more than six weeks, unless there is a real possibility that the child or children will be taken out of the country. In effect this works as a six weeks' cooling off period. The decision to restrict the availability of legal aid in family law property matters, to which the honourable member made reference, was taken more than a year ago. It was not part of the decisions taken by the commission in December last year.
Legal aid is available in special circumstances for family law property matters, notwithstanding the comment made by the Hon. Jan Burnswoods. I repeat what I said on Tuesday: decisions relating to the types of matters for which legal aid will be granted are the responsibility of the Legal Aid Commission, which must work within its allocated budget in the same way that every other agency funded by the Government must do. The Government has provided all the funding required under the Commonwealth-State funding agreement and has granted an additional $1.8 million to the commission to enable it to carry out the court delay reduction program.
I have told honourable members of the recent payroll tax exemption decision, which is worth an additional $1.2 million to $1.4 million to the commission in a full financial year. In regard to the financial management of the commission, about which I commented at length, I am pleased to inform the House that yesterday I received a letter from the commission informing me that it has now agreed to obtain independent advice from a major accounting firm. I welcome that decision by the commission, as it is a positive step forward.
I am confident that with an improved system of financial management the commission will provide its valuable services to the community in an even more efficient and cost-effective way in the future. All reasonable members of the House will welcome that advice. I wait to hear the next instalment of comments made by the Hon. Jan Burnswoods. I hope they will be more reliable than they have been to date.