Life after the bench: Robert French to head access to justice review

In his first post-retirement role, former High Court chief justice Robert French is tackling one of the legal system's most intractable problems: the barriers to justice encountered by disadvantaged groups.

The peak body for the legal profession, the Law Council of Australia, announced on Friday Mr French would oversee "the Justice Project", a national review aimed at smoothing the path to justice for those facing significant economic and social disadvantage.

Mr French, who retired from the High Court bench in January after a judicial career spanning 30 years including eight years as chief justice, told Fairfax Media the project was not an attempt to "reinvent the wheel" and the Law Council would draw on existing research as well as consulting with the community.

As a Federal Court judge for more than two decades, Mr French saw first-hand the difficulties faced by parties who could not afford legal representation.

"That was a range of people - obviously asylum seekers were a big part of that but they were not the only people," he said.

Mr French will chair the project's 13-strong steering committee, which includes Australian Law Reform Commission president Rosalind Croucher and Australian Council of Social Service chief executive Cassandra Goldie.

He said there were "two strong strands" in the inquiry, the first addressing impediments to providing equality before the law in a practical sense and the second examining the economic case.

"Ultimately I suspect there is far more cost imposed in the court system, and therefore on the community, when people come to court either ill-advised or unrepresented, or don't address their legal problems at an early enough stage to get them resolved fairly easily," he said.

"The longer you leave a legal problem, it's like leaving a medical problem - things tend to pile up."

The Law Council will release a consultation paper in the second half of the year followed by a final report by December 1 making recommendations to government about improving access to justice for a range of people including Indigenous Australians, children and the elderly, asylum seekers, prisoners, homeless people and those with disabilities.

Mr French, the founding chairman of the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia and a former president of the National Native Title Tribunal, has spoken publicly about the "appalling" rates of Aboriginal incarceration and supported constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.

Alternatives to the court process were also an important part of access to justice, he said, and the problems were not always related to funding.

Under the leadership of president Fiona McLeod, SC, the Law Council is taking an active role in a range of policy areas including tackling unconscious bias in a male-dominated profession.

Ms McLeod said the project was "really about establishing true equality before the law" and would chart the experience of some "invisible" people in the community, such as victims of trafficking.

"Yes it's primarily about money and the fact that governments have stripped legal aid from the system back to its bones over the last 15 years or so, but it's also about new thinking," Ms McLeod said.

"Legal aid, court resourcing, the impacts of denial of access to justice are not just issues for the Attorney-General, they cover the whole of government ... such as Centrelink debt recovery."

This story Life after the bench: Robert French to head access to justice review first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.