The federal government of Australia recently proposed reforms to legal aid funding that would have affected the availability of legal services for those in need. This made me consider alternative ways to resolve disputes for everyone. Could or should the federal government fund mediation in the first instance?

Recent proposed changes to Australia’s system of funding community legal centres has drawn adverse reactions because of the affect on the provision of legal services to those in need. Consequently, the government has backed down and under the plan, states and territory governments will be tasked to allot funds for the community legal centres within their jurisdiction. This will reduce the funds available for these centres, and even cause some of them to close down. Thankfully, the Federal Government did not move forward with its proposed budget cuts for community and Indigenous legal centres. Instead, these facilities were allocated AUD25.5 million for the next two years. Federal Attorney-General Brandis said the government pushed back on its plan to prioritise the needs of the vulnerable members of the community. Before the decision was made, several state and territory Attorneys-General had also written to Brandis about the adverse effect that the proposal could have for indigenous people and domestic violence victims that rely on these legal centres. Now that it is withdrawn, these community members can rest well knowing that legal aid is available. The reversal on funding cuts will help continue the fight against domestic violence, said Michaelia Cash, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women.

If the proposal had gone through, indigenous communities and individuals victimised by domestic violence could struggle to obtain legal assistance. Without these services, it will be too costly for them to obtain legal representation under normal circumstances. Aside from this, there could be further delays in court hearings. Without proper legal representation, courts are not likely to grant a hearing for those accused of criminal offenses, said Northern Territory Attorney-General John Elferink. To minimise the impact of these funding cuts, the Federal Government said it will still allot a “very substantial amount” for legal services, and it will include funding for states and territories for the year’s budget, according to a spokesman of federal Attorney-General Brandis.

In Canberra, the domestic violence unit of the Legal Aid ACT has seen a 46% increase in family and domestic disputes that require its assistance over the last three years. The up-tick in demand has been noticed in all of the services that the organisation provides, according to Dr. John Boersig, chief executive of the Legal Aid ACT. This has prompted the group to increase its workforce, especially the number of lawyers in the domestic violence unit. If the proposed funding cuts are approved in the near future, it will only worsen the situation of those suffering domestic violence. Victims will not come out and report the abuse if it is difficult for them to obtain legal services, and they could hesitate to bring the battle to court.

If such a scenario, where can people turn to? Fortunately, there are alternatives to courts in resolving disputes, such as mediation. Through an independent and neutral legal mediator, parties are able to discuss underlying issues in their conflict and brainstorm potential resolutions. Mainly, the role of the mediator will be to facilitate the communication between both sides, encourage them to talk about their conflict and enable them to explore mutually-satisfying outcomes on their own. During the process, the legal mediator listens, summarises the perspective and acknowledges the emotions of the participants. They also reveal the interests of both sides, find common ground and identify mutually acceptable resolutions to each other.

Mediation has shown to resolve disputes faster than litigation or arbitration. Since it enables parties to control the process of dispute resolution, the conflict can be resolved in a short amount of time. It also encourages parties to focus on the future and possible outcomes, instead of expecting a determination of which side is right, which helps to preserve their relationship and move on. Moreover, it helps save money by not having to go through a lengthy and therefore costly court process.

It is often violence, age, mental health, lack of education and cultural issues that make people in our community vulnerable. Mediators can identify and work with these vulnerabilities and risks. Mediators can cater for these issues and tailor the mediation process accordingly.

Mediation is now being encouraged across Australia by courts because of its potential to ease the strain on courts. Various NGO organisations specialising in alternative dispute resolution have been providing mediation including Relationships Australia and Centacare. There are about 6900 nationally accredited mediators around Australia. Through organisations and individual mediators, the governments may be able to find help in exploring an alternative in resolving disputes efficiently and inexpensively.

Since mediation resolves disputes faster for less, safely, it may help the community in the event that legal aid funding should be jeopardised again. The clients in need of the legal services can still be helped to achieve their own outcomes by referring out to mediation, and vulnerable members of the community can still have ongoing access to an effective method of dispute resolution. After all, that’s what justice is all about.