The problem with our gold-standard legal system

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For many of us, we would rarely consider the possibility of being involved in legal action against our employer.

Often we are unaware of the range of laws that govern us in our seemingly uneventful daily routine of getting up in the morning in our rented or mortgaged house, eating breakfast with our spouse who may legally own half of everything, driving to work and abiding by traffic laws and employment laws that cover us, then buying some groceries on our credit card on the way home. And so the day goes on.

What happens when you have a problem paying the rent or mortgage? Are involved in a relationship breakdown? Incur a traffic infringement? Are owed wages? Or experience crippling debt? Can you right the wrong on your own?

With physical and mental health, financial and emotional resilience, and support from a team of family and friends, you can.

You may have a meritorious legal claim against a big company for rental bond repayment. You may be owed wages, or be entitled to seek credit and debt relief.

However, in many instances you may need to represent yourself in the relevant court or commission. In reality, this takes time, in some cases years. It can cost money, even if it is a no costs jurisdiction. It requires emotional strength as your character may be questioned. This is no small feat for the average person.

There are three significant barriers to accessing justice in Australia. Firstly, being aware there may be a law that covers you. Secondly, understanding this law, and thirdly being able to navigate a complex legal system to bring about a legal claim.

We maintain a gold standard legal system in Australia, funded by tax payers who are too overwhelmed to use it when they need it.

The Employment Law Centre of WA (ELC) is a community legal centre providing advice, further assistance and representation to thousands of vulnerable employees each year. They can confirm many people’s lack of legal awareness, their difficulty understanding the law, and the barriers bringing about a claim in this area of law.

In Western Australia, there is a dual system of employment laws, which is a source of confusion for many WA employees. To navigate an employment issue requires an awareness that there are both state and national system laws that can apply to an employment situation, an understanding of how to apply these laws to work out which legal claim or argument may be best suited to their employment issue, and the confidence to make a claim.

It is clear why this can be an overwhelming prospect for many people. ELC’s research shows that even if a legal claim has merit, one third of their clients receiving legal advice with a meritorious claim do not pursue the matter due to the complicated nature of the legal problem and law that applies, the stress of the legal process, financial cost, and anticipated time it may take to continue the claim.

Community legal centres are key to accessing justice for many people as they provide community legal education to increase awareness and understanding of the law and legal process; they provide legal advice, support and representation during a legal matter; and they advocate to government for fair, equitable and simplified laws and legal processes.

  • Sara Kane is manager of the Employment Law Centre of Western Australia and chairperson of the National Association of Community Legal Centres.
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