Legal aid has become an important part of many people’s lives, and it can make all the difference in a case.
But how many lawyers are there?
The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that there are now about 13.4 million Australians who work in legal aid.
Of those, 1.5 million are in Australia’s capital cities, and another 800,000 are in regional areas.
The remaining 700,000 lawyers are spread across a variety of legal aid offices, from smaller ones to the biggest in Sydney and Melbourne.
The ABS figures show that of the 10 states and territories that have the highest proportion of legal professionals, five of them have a large proportion of lawyers working in legal assistance.
Victoria, the state with the largest proportion of Australians working in Legal Aid, has nearly 50 per cent of its lawyers working for the organisation.
But the figures don’t necessarily mean that every legal aid office has a lawyer working full-time.
“It is difficult to compare legal aid to other types of employment, such as farming or agriculture, where a lot of people will need the time off to work on their farm or get a job on a farm, so we’re not able to draw comparisons to that,” Professor Mark Evans, from the Centre for Law and the Public Interest at the University of NSW, told ABC News.
“In legal aid we tend to see a lot more people working part-time in the legal aid sector, but the reason for that is they are doing a lot less legal aid.”
It is a well-known fact that many of the most vulnerable people in Australia are often those in legal services, as they often struggle to pay their debts, or get on with their lives.
Professor Evans explained that legal aid is an important source of income for many people who do not have the resources to get a mortgage or buy a home.
“A lot of those people are very young and are looking for work and have been waiting for that to happen, so they have been put in that position and that can put them at greater risk, because of the nature of their case,” he said.
“People may be struggling to get on in their life and the legal services are a really good place to get those support and help, as well as some help from friends and family, because that is a very common experience.”
Professor Evans said that while the number of lawyers may be relatively low, the sheer number of legal staff has a direct impact on the quality of legal advice.
“We have a very large legal aid workforce, and that means there are very large caseloads,” he explained.
“You don’t just have to have a law school degree to do that work.
We also have lawyers who have done training courses, and are very good at what they do, and then we have people who are lawyers, but they can’t do the job because they’re not trained properly.”
The ABS data also shows that in Victoria, there are more lawyers working at the Legal Aid Society than in any other state.
Professor Evans said the reason is because there are so many lawyers who work at Legal Aid in Victoria.
“Victoria has a very well-trained legal services workforce, so that means they can do a lot,” he noted.
“But there are also other types or occupations that can’t be trained properly, such the service sector, so there are a lot people who have no experience working in those types of jobs.”
Professor David Hutton, from University of Western Australia’s Centre for Legal Studies, said that a significant proportion of people are looking to legal aid for a variety, but are not sure what they want to do.
“There are a number of reasons why people do not choose legal aid in Australia, but that doesn’t mean they are not seeking a different service,” he told ABC news.
“Some people choose to work for the Legal Services Commission, but others choose to pursue employment or training options elsewhere, and there are others who choose to become involved in the community in order to be involved in legal service work.”
Professor Hutton said that although the numbers of lawyers in Australia has increased over the past few years, the number that can legally work in the state of Victoria has not.
“I think one of the reasons that is the reason why there is such a large number of people who work for Legal Aid is because the legal profession in Australia is very competitive, and if there is a shortage of lawyers, that means that other employers can look at them,” he observed.
“So if there are less lawyers in the profession, that creates a lot that can be done to increase the number, so I think that is one of its positive features.”
If you are looking at the number who work full- time, then you can see that there is certainly a lot going on.