More than 45,000 Australians have had to face judges without the guiding hand of a lawyer since 2010.
The Law Council of Australia puts that down to a lack of legal aid funding.
"Lives are being ruined because people who encounter legal problems cannot afford a lawyer to present their case effectively," council president Stuart Clark said in a statement on Monday.
"They are women trying to escape domestic violence, average workers who unfairly lose their job, or young men and women who are facing the prospect of prison."
Funding was so scarce that even people living below the poverty line often weren't eligible.
Another 160,000 people each year are turned away from community legal centres unable to keep up with demand for help.
The council wants the next federal government to put an extra $260 million into a system it says is now on the brink of failure.
It wants the states and territories to tip in another $80 million as well.
Legal aid groups in South Australia will rally on Monday against what they say are more than $6 million in cuts over the next five years.
The state's Legal Services Commission will lose $4 million, community legal services $2 million and the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement more than $500,000, the Law Society of SA says.
"What's the point of a system that recognises every person's right to a fair hearing if people are not funded to realise their rights?" the society's president David Caruso said.