A Queensland legal service that has helped thousands of money-strapped clients take legal action or defend themselves in court is worried about its own financial future, as it waits to hear whether federal funding will be renewed.
The Queensland Public Interest Law Clearing House (QPILCH) is a not-for-profit operation that runs the free Self-Representation Service (SRS) for people experiencing serious disadvantage who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
The Federal Government will cut funding to community legal centres by 30 per cent from July 1.
Raquel Dos Santos said SRS clients could not navigate the legal system alone. (ABC News: Melinda Howells)
SRS is funded from a different pool of money, but solicitor and SRS coordinator Raquel Dos Santos said that funding ended in June and they had received no advice on its renewal, prompting fears the writing was on the wall.
“It is a battle for community legal centres like QPILCH to have access to funding, and the funding is generally every three years … which doesn’t allow our organisation to plan ahead,” Ms Dos Santos said.
The Queensland SRS was the first of its kind to be set up in Australia, with the model later adopted across the country.
Ms Dos Santos said clients struggled to navigate the legal system alone.
“We can give them advice, we can help them prepare court documents, draft submissions, help them prepare for hearings, mediations,” she said.
While the SRS relied heavily on volunteer solicitors and barristers, its operations have been underpinned by funding from state and federal governments.
‘They just went completely ruthless’
Retired accountant Tom Dixon said the SRS helped him settle a bitter and lengthy dispute with his bank.
When his share portfolio plunged in value during the global financial crisis, Mr Dixon took out a second mortgage on his parents’ Brisbane home, which was repossessed when he could not make the repayments.
“I never denied that I owed them [the bank] money. I was always trying to hold on so I could sell my house and pay them back, but they weren’t interested in that, they just went completely ruthless,” he said.
Mr Dixon said the SRS helped him reach a settlement and start to rebuild his life.
“Between them and the Wesley City Mission, they gave me a chance at life and I’m still here. I wouldn’t have been without both of them.”
Federal Court District Registrar Heather Baldwin said self-represented litigants made applications every day.
“It’s very common and often they believe that litigation is their first resort, where it really should be their last resort, because the court is an adversarial system and it’s quite difficult to navigate through the process.”
Ms Baldwin said QPILCH had provided a very valuable service.
“The court’s resources are very precious and there is a lot of cases waiting to be heard so to take a disproportionate amount of time on one case impacts on the other cases,” she said.
Ms Dos Santos said clients with little chance of success were strongly urged to avoid legal action.
“When we divert those cases from the judicial system that don’t have merit, we’re also saving significant costs to the courts and the parties involved,” she said.