Professional conflict and legal services: the legal aid debate in Australia, 1972-1982
thesisposted on 28.03.2022, 17:09 by Stephen A. Tomsen
The bulk of the sociological literature on the professions and profession-state relations is underlaid with a misleading ideal-type of the free-market practitioner whose situation is contrasted from those employed in large bureaucracies. The autonomy, status and privileges of many professionals are seen as threatened by state encroachment in the form of direct control of professional work as an employer, or through the regulation of the market for professional services. 'Deprofessionalisation', or even 'proletarianisation', are seen as resulting from this. The need for a more sophisticated view of state-profession relations which considers their complex, mutual effects is suggested by the history of the legal profession and legal aid policy in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. In this period, new professional groups 'engaged' the state to expand public legal services and fill the unmet 'legal needs' of the poor and disadvantaged. An increased state responsibility for equal access to the legal system was evident in the rapid development of services in the Whitlam era. Despite the election of a conservative Federal government at the end of 1975 and the subsequent restructuring of. legal aid on state lines, this responsibility, and the increasing cost of services, have not waned. This brief, rapid expansion of salaried government aid led to a political mobilisation of the legal profession's traditional elites through the various state Law Societies. But the process of state engagement and the development of a diverse and vocal 'legal services' segment of the profession has altered its internal political balance. The Law Societies now have a much diminished influence and control over legal aid policy and administration. These developments parallel important changes in the size, social composition, training and work of the profession, as well as threats in the legal market from oversupply, economic downturn and rival occupations, which made an increase in the demand for legal services necessary. The declining influence of some lawyer groups over legal aid and related areas of policy, has not meant an overall loss of status or work autonomy for Australian lawyers. It is lawyers per se who still control these matters and who benefit from the public subsidisation of the legal market, expanded work, and the legalisation of a greater number of social problems and disputes.