Law Council head John North warned it is gravely concerned about the possibility that “the merging of legal services has brought about an inferior quality of legal representation, where indigenous people are unrepresented or spending unnecessary amounts of time on remand.”
He said there have been suggestions that some Aborigines may have been held for months on remand and others are thought to have pleaded guilty rather than face trial without legal representation amid a massive backlog of cases.
“It’s no good saying there’s a backlog and all this sort of thing, you cannot, in a democratic country, have people on remand who are innocent until proven guilty,” Mr North told the Australian Associated Press (AAP).
Such a trend could potentially add to the already high incarceration rate of Australia’s indigenous population, he said.
According to statistics published by the Healthinfonet online service, 20 percent of Australia’s prisoners in 2002 were Aboriginal, a disproportionate level of incarceration for a group which accounts for just 2 percent of the overall population.
Attorney-General Philip Ruddock recently consolidated indigenous legal aid in the state of Queensland as part of a post-ATSIC rationalisation.
From 12 service providers, Queensland is now down to two legal aid organisations.
The Townsville Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Legal Service won the tender to provide indigenous legal aid for all areas north of Mackay up to the tip of Queensland’s Cape York.
The organisation has effectively taken charge of legal services for the bulk of the state’s indigenous people.
Service staff said it had inherited a backlog of cases when handed the major contract, provoking anger from the Law Council of Australia.
“If ‘streamlining’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services has led to longer delays and a deterioration in the quality of representation in Queensland, then it is an appalling state of affairs that must be rectified straight away,” Mr North said.
According to the AAP, the Queensland Chief Justice Marshall Irwin this week confirmed he had held talks with the Townsville-based legal service to discuss resolving the problem.
The federal government has also promised to address the issue.