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CLCs call for funding boost

News

Cite as: May 2015 89 (5) LIJ, p.26

Concern over family violence moved the government to reinstate legal services.

Peak legal bodies have welcomed the federal government’s decision to reverse cuts to legal services but say it must boost funding to truly protect access to justice for vulnerable Australians.

Funding cuts of more than $25 million over two years to legal services, including community legal centres and Indigenous legal service providers, were due to take effect on 1 July.

But following widespread concerns for frontline services, including a letter from the states and territories’ attorneys-general outlining their fears for the system, the government announced in March that the budget cuts would not proceed.

A joint statement released by Attorney-General George Brandis and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women Michaelia Cash said the government “had listened” and moved to ensure family violence victims and other vulnerable Australians, including Indigenous people, would continue to have access to legal help.

“With more victims speaking out about this scourge [of family violence] and seeking help to escape such violence, we are responding accordingly with appropriate resourcing,” the statement said.

National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC) chair Michael Smith said the decision recognised the critical importance of legal services for disadvantaged people.

“In particular for woman and children facing family violence, the legal support from their community legal centre can be a real lifeline and prevents the violence escalating, improving safety and support,” Mr Smith said.

“It’s also vital for people with housing and employment problems, for people with debt and consumer issues and many struggling Australians with legal problems.”

LIV president Katie Miller said the government had made the “sensible decision” to reverse its position.

“I think the stories that we’ve heard about entire parts of Victoria, if not around the country, having no access to a family violence lawyer – I don’t think that anybody looked at that and thought, ‘That make sense’.

“It was short-sighted and so I think that the right policy decision has been made.

“Politically maybe some people were surprised that this government made the decision but I’m delighted that they did make the good policy decision.”

But Ms Miller said the funding restoration was just “stage one”.

“Stage two is that the government now needs to look at what sort of funding is needed for the legal assistance sector to ensure that it is sustainable in the future.”

Federation of Community Legal Centres (FCLC)executive officer Liana Buchanan said there had been broad concern that had the cuts gone ahead, frontline services would have been damaged.

“We know every centre that was hit by the cuts and there isn’t one where frontline services and vulnerable people were not directly impacted,” she said.

“What we need now is an evidence-based approach that matches funding for legal assistance with legal need.”

Ms Buchanan and Mr Smith called on the government to act on a Productivity Commission recommendation to increase funding to legal assistance services in Australia by $200 million.

The Productivity Commission’s Access to Justice Arrangements report found that Australian and state and territory governments needed to provide the extra funding to “better align the means test [used by legal services], maintain existing frontline services; and broaden the scope of legal assistance services”.

The Commission also recommended that funding priorities be frontline services and advocacy work that “efficiently and effectively solves systemic issues”.

However, Senator Brandis is going ahead with cuts to advocacy services, saying that resources should go to “case work rather than causes”.

Ms Buchanan said advocacy work made sense. “We know that advocacy is a vital task for community legal centres in preventing legal problems that would otherwise increase the number of cases that walk into our centres every day, and this has been clearly acknowledge by the Productivity Commission,” she said.

The FCLC and NACLC have also called for more time to negotiate with the government about planned changes to the way community legal services are funded.

The federal government plans to overhaul the way centres are funded by allocating a certain amount of money to each state and territory; state and territory governments would then assign funds to individual community legal centres. The changes are due to take effect on 1 July but Mr Smith warned this was an “impossible timeline” and called on the government to defer the implementation of the reforms for one year so all parties could work together on implementing the changes.

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