Alternative Law Journal
This issue looks at access to the law and to legal services in regional, rural and remote (RRR) communities. A difficulty that flows through this issue is the lack of a common 'definition' of which communities are covered by the tag 'regional, rural and remote'. The communities that tend to fall into this category share many common characteristics but display great diversity as well. This diversity is often ignored within policy formulation and service delivery. There is an urgent need to better understand just who constitutes RRR communities, to enable more appropriate policy to be formulated to meet their legal service and other needs.
Given the increasing political prominence of rural communities, it is surprising that access to the law outside our cities has not received more interest from policy makers, the media and the legal profession. In October 1999, Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson hosted the Regional Australia Summit in Canberra. Legal service issues appear not to have rated a mention. In June 2000, a three-day conference considered the future of Australia's country towns. Again, legal services were not a focus for participants.
The ABC has a great rural website, but the site contains very little 'law-specific' information. In February 2001, the Law Report on ABC Radio National considered the legal issues arising from the use of new technology to deliver medical services over long distances. However, the Law Report and other media have failed to pay the same attention to the delivery of legal services in rural Australia, including proposals to use technology for such delivery.
We hope the articles in this issue will make a useful contribution to raising the profile of 'bush law' concerns. Our article, written with Barbara Hook, considers rural legal services from the perspectives of both users and providers. Kaz Eaton reports on the first major conference held to examine the legal needs of women in regional, rural and remote Australia.
Nick Economou reviews the factors that have resulted in the increasing political significance of regional Australia. He suggests that conservative political parties in particular will face further upheaval due to dissatisfaction amongst voters outside the capital cities.
Merran Lawler highlights the problems faced by mobile home park residents, and in particular the different kinds of isolation they can face, while Cathy Pereira identifies a range of difficulties faced by inmates of Queensland's regional prisons. Some services central to prisoners becoming eligible for various pre-release programs are very difficult for inmates in some prisons to access.
Margot Rawsthorne deals with the topical issue of telecommunications technology for delivery of legal services. She warns that this technology is not a magical solution to the legal service access 'issues facing rural Australia.
In addition, we asked those providing legal services in regional, rural and remote communities to share their experiences and to tell us about their projects, the challenges they face in service delivery, and the particular needs of their clients. These are in the Briefs section.
While new technology has a major role to play in serving the legal needs of rural communities, it is essential that there be a range of services available to people, delivered in a range of forms, taking into account the diversity of legal needs and interests within rural communities. Further, these services must be coordinated effectively.
Advocates of improved rural access to legal services may be able to learn from the efforts of health professionals to improve rural access to health services. The Commonwealth government introduced a More Doctors, Better Services Sirategv in the 2000/2001 Budget that includes a range of mechanisms designed to strengthen the rural health workforce and provide better health services. Legal services have not received a similar level of attention. Why is this? What does it say about how we view legal services? Surely, the legal system plays a central role in the effective operation of our democratic institutions such that it is important for rural communities to have appropriate access to the courts and legal system.
The clearest matter emerging in this issue is the need for greater research into the needs of RRR communities. As Kaz Eaton reports, little research focusing on legal needs in RRR concerns has been undertaken to date. Consequently, the issues facing those in 'the bush' tend to remain misunderstood by their capital city cousins. By raising awareness of RRR concerns in this issue, we hope to facilitate greater debate and, hopefully research - about them, as well as a better understanding of the RRRs.
Jeff Giddings and Jennifer Nielsen
Jeff Giddings teaches law at Griffith University.
Jennifer Nielsen teaches law at Southern Cross University.