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Latest news – New funding help for women; Legaltech budget woes; Revenue lift for small firms

Funding boost welcome for legal assistance services

The Law Council of Australia is pleased that the Australian Government has announced additional funding for Australia’s legal assistance sector, with a focus on improving access to justice for women and those experiencing mental health issues.

Key funding measures in the 2021-22 Budget will provide a range of further legal assistance resourcing under the National Legal Assistance Partnership, including:

  • $129 million over four years for women’s legal services to increase their capacity to women, including those experiencing, or at risk of, family violence;
  • $17.1 million over four years to Domestic Violence Units and Health Justice Partnerships to deliver additional mental health-specific services for women who have experienced family and domestic violence; and
  • $60 million over four years for the legal assistance sector to provide support to people experiencing mental health conditions.

“The legal assistance sector has been chronically underfunded over many years, and this Budget is a step in the right direction towards a greater recognition of the critical role these services play in providing access to justice for some our most vulnerable communities,” said President of the Law Council, Dr Jacoba Brasch QC.

“Women’s legal services, in particular, have faced a significant increase in demand over the last 12 months, with the COVID-19 pandemic pushing these already resource-poor centres to breaking point.”

Frontline legal services within the legal assistance sector – Legal Aid Commissions, Community Legal Centres, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, and Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services – are fundamentally important to improving the lives of marginalised and vulnerable communities.

“The downstream savings created by proper investment in the legal sector are clear. It’s time government recognises that a failure to adequately invest in these services has broader implications to health, housing, social services and welfare, child protection, families, corrections, policing and justice portfolios,” said Dr Brasch QC.

“While we want to see significant increases in funding across all parts of the legal assistance sector, particularly for specialised and culturally appropriate legal services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we are hopeful that this Budget indicates a recognition by government that resourcing this sector is a fundamental component to responding to challenging social and economic problems.”

Legal-tech funding falling short: survey

The 2021 EY Law Survey reveals that legal departments have been struggling to secure budgets for legal-tech adoption, despite the importance of such initiatives.

Ninety-seven per cent of the 2000-plus respondents to the global survey, which was conducted in partnership with Harvard Law School, indicated that they faced challenges in getting sufficient budgets for tech investment. The biggest hindrance was an ability to get C-suite buy-in.

Just under one in three respondents among in-house counsel reported having adequate technology to do their work, even though many general counsels thought adopting technology could lead to reduced costs for their organisations. Only 50 per cent of legal departments bolstered their use of technology in the past 12 months.

About 40 per cent of respondents said they did not have the data and/or the expertise to make a case for legal-tech investment.

“If legal departments are to remain effective in our increasingly global, complex and interconnected regulatory environment, they must act fast to transform their legal operations and invest in the right technology,” said Kate Barton, EY global vice chair – tax. “Only then will they be able to keep pace with a fast-growing list of regulatory, cyber and operational risks confronting organisations today.”

Most small firms get revenue boost from COVID-19

Findings from the State of Small Law Australia Survey indicate that COVID-19 has had more positive revenue impacts than negatives for most small law firms.

Conducted by the cloud-based legal practice management software business, Smokeball, the survey takes in the views of 134 small law firms across Australia. Fifty-seven per cent of respondents to the survey saw a positive impact in their business revenue over 2020, with technology adoption and the increased appetite for property purchases the key drivers, However, 43 per cent saw an overall negative impact on their revenue in the same time frame. Key negative impacts were felt from delays in the court and legal system (75.6 per cent), burnout (61.5 per cent), work-life balance (49 per cent) and productivity (43.7 per cent).

The outlook for 2021 is good, as most respondents expect to increase their profitability this year (82 per cent), with the majority of those expecting to increase revenue between 10 and 15 per cent, and almost one-fifth expecting to achieve more than 20 per cent profit growth.

Conveyancers and property focused lawyers have been the winners on the back of a huge increase in property purchases across the country, particularly in regional areas. Worryingly, though, two-thirds of firms do not believe or are unsure if their billing accurately reflects their firm’s completed work. Only one-quarter of respondents knew what percentage of their time-billed work was billed daily and almost half (46 per cent) estimated they were not billing up to a quarter of their work.