Chief legal officer of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, Christopher Charles, said In the diary that nine criminal lawyers had resigned from the organization pro bono in 2021-22 to seek more competitive salaries within the public or private sector.
He said the “unacceptable rate of attrition” had led the legal aid service to stop accepting new cases in Port Augusta over Christmas as it had no qualified lawyers to manage the files.
The Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement (ALRM) is an Aboriginal community-controlled legal practice that provides free legal assistance specifically to First Nations communities.
It receives approximately $33 million over five years from the federal government, and about 80 percent of its budget is used to pay the 30 attorneys it employs throughout the state.
But Charles said ALRM was unable to keep up with the salary increases provided at equivalent legal aid organizations, as government funding had been largely static for the past 20 years.
The organization becomes unsustainable when we are losing people who are capable of doing the job correctly.
He said the organization also struggled to attract lawyers to live and work in regional areas, which meant it had to spend more on travel expenses to service the country’s courts.
“One of the reasons we can pull through and continue is because we have a lot of young lawyers,” he said.
“We can’t pay them the same rates as other parts of the industry, like the Crown, the police and those kinds of places, but they get a very, very good experience here.
“We’re constantly being juniorized and we’re constantly having to train baby lawyers basically and we’re losing all the experienced people just at the time they become useful to us.
“The organization becomes unsustainable when we are losing people who are capable of doing the job correctly.”
Charles said that one of his experienced lawyers was currently handling a caseload of 150 clients in the Elizabeth Magistrates Court, as well as being responsible for matters in the Ceduna and Yalata Magistrates Courts, as there were not enough qualified lawyers. to share the load.
He described the situation as “outrageous” and a “constant cause for concern”.
“We are more concerned with occupational safety and health issues, not to mention the risk management issue when someone is carrying so many files,” he said.
“We have good management systems, but we don’t like to put people under this kind of continuous pressure.
“When you’re in court all day and then you take 10 or 20 files home at night to read through and prepare for tomorrow, it’s work-life balance that worries me.”
When asked how much demand ALRM is currently experiencing, Charles said, “horrendous is the short answer.”
We will not allow anyone to provide poor service, which is one of the most important non-negotiables here.
He said lawyers were under increased pressure due to a backlog of cases that couldn’t make it through the courts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For example, the APY Lands circuit for very good reasons that has to do with the quarantine had to be abandoned for two circuits, which was I think (in) January and March,” he said.
“It’s back this week or next week and it’s going to be horrendous lists, absolutely horrendous lists.
“It just becomes very difficult to maintain service, but we will not allow anyone to provide poor service, which is one of the most important non-negotiables here.”
In a presentation to the state government ahead of its budget release next Thursday, the SA Law Society called for an investigation into the statewide demand for Aboriginal legal services.
He asked the state government to commit to providing funds to ALRM, in addition to what the Commonwealth already provides, to ensure the organization keeps up with demand.
ALRM executive director Chris Larkin said state government funding “would go a long way in terms of pay parity”.
“Certainly we would have the ability to offer people more permanence and financing without one-time things,” he said.
“It would be a great advantage for us to tell people, ‘You have a future if you stay here and you’ll be able to get a mortgage like everyone you were with in law.’
“Clearly we have career progression available to people if they can stick around long enough to do it.”
In the diary he sought a response from the Attorney General and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Kyam Maher, but was redirected to the Attorney General’s Department.
A department spokesman said the state government had “tremendous respect” for ALRM and had already provided funds to the organization to run programs such as the Aboriginal Justice Advocacy Service.
“The state government will work constructively with the legal aid sector, including ALRM, to enhance the supports available to indigenous South Australians through the legal sector,” the spokesperson said.
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