Equality Before the Law--An Australian Example
Barrister & Solicitor of High Court of Australia
President, Canberra Chinese Club Incorporated
¡@¡@Australia is a lucky country with vast amount of natural resources and very scarce population (less than 18,000,000). More than twenty years of ruling by the Australian Labour Party had made Australia a true welfare state. Single mothers, the elders, the disabled, the unemployed and children are being well looked after by the Government. For example, a single mother with a 5-year-old child is entitled to discounted rate in water, electricity, car registration, public transport fare etc and benefit of $150.00 per week. Traditionally women's inequality in economic life had led to their reluctance in leaving a violent partner. This is less likely the case in Australia since women here enjoy direct access to social benefit if they become unemployed and have to raise children on their own. Put it simply, women of Australia are much less dependent on their partners than their counterparts in the rest of the Asian Pacific region.
¡@¡@Australian women thus have enjoy equality before the law to a certain extent. The introduction of Equal Employment Opportunity and Anti-Discrimination legislation has improved women's status at workplace and public arena. Still, there are always room for improvement and the Law Reform Commission has responded to women's need of better and more direct access to the legal system. There are inevitably women who failed to turn up to court at the last minute because they have to attend to their children or they are too intimidated by the confrontation, even when they have a strong case. Women are still less than assertive when it comes to pursuing their legal right and previlege in adversarial situation. The Commission successfully identified the five key areas where the legal system often failed women:
1. Women are often left in the dark as they have difficulty finding relevant information.
2. Even when women are aware of their rights they often find that they are not taken seriously by the law enforcement authority, for example, the police.
3. Poor professional advice can pose as a barrier for women to gain access to justice. Most women find that they feel intimidated and threatened by their solicitors who, in most cases, are male.
4. Prohibitive legal costs also deter women from seeking recourse in court system because women are generally less financially comfortable than men.
5. Other barriers to access legal assistance include child care arrangements, humiliation and embarrassment caused by attending public courtrooms.
¡@¡@Costs in hiring a lawyer can be so high (from A$150-A$180 per hour, that is NT$3000 - NT$3600 per hour) that some women shy away and seek mediation outside the court or even withdraw any claim/complaint they have. This can be resolved by increasing free legal assistance to women, i.e. the Government pays for all the legal costs in hiring a lawyer. At the moment, there is already substantial funding allocated to providing free legal assistance to women, especially those who suffered from domestic violence and family law litigation.
¡@¡@To ensure that the legal system responded to Australian women in the most appropriate and adequate way, the Attorney-General's Department seek to improve women's access to the legal system by taking the following steps:
a. Setting up an additional women's legal service in each State and Territory to provide free legal advice.
b. Setting up a toll free telephone legal advice and referral service for all women in Australia.
c. Allocation of funding to community legal education programme for women to gain awareness of their rights and responsibility.
d. Encouraging women to attend courts and tribunals instead of withdrawing half way through the proceeding.
e. Creating a better client focus in the delivery of court services, with special attention to the needs of women.
¡@¡@Australia is a perfect example of how women lobbyist groups tirelessly work towards achieving equality in all aspects of life, be it in the family, workplace, the court room or the parliament. This is the result of economic independence of women and such independence is the result of a highly educated female population. There are women holding key positions within the Government agencies as well as the justice system. They form part of the decision making body and help other women to gain access to facilities, welfare, job market and the law.
All Rights Reserved by Angela Wu. Any non-academic citation must obtain the written agreement from the author.
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