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‘Paltry’ legal aid funding fails to keep pace with demand

‘Paltry’ legal aid funding fails to keep pace with demand

By Karin Derkley

Access to Justice 

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The federal government’s "underwhelming" funding package for legal assistance will place more pressure on the Victorian state government to cover ballooning demand for legal aid, says LIV president Stuart Webb.

Less than $20 million in extra funding was allocated to legal assistance funding in the 2019 federal budget handed down on Tuesday, an amount that Mr Webb says “falls far short of the actual need and demand”.

“What it’s going to mean is that the pressure on the state government, which already carries the burden of a significant percentage of legal aid spending, is going to continue,” Mr Webb says.

An inquiry into access to justice by the Productivity Commission five years ago recommended that $200 million be injected immediately into the sector to plug urgent legal aid shortfalls. The federal government currently contributes only around 35 per cent of legal aid funding, down from 55 per cent in 1997, with the states making up the balance.

Law Council of Australia president Arthur Moses has described the funding allocated in the federal budget as “abysmal”.

“Additional funding of $20 million, while welcome, does not come close to addressing the minimum $310 million a year shortfall identified by the Law Council, which is required to address decades of chronic underfunding of the legal assistance sector,” Mr Moses says.

Victorian Women’s Legal Services CEO Joanne Fletcher says the “paltry” funding package is disappointing but “not surprising” and means the organisation will have to continue to turn away vulnerable women who need legal assistance, especially in areas such as family law.

“The legal assistance sector as a whole has been under threat for a number of years and even with this small investment, funding is going backwards in real money terms,” Ms Fletcher says.

“There are significant numbers of women we’re already not able to assist – and as funding goes down in real money terms that gets harder.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services (ATSILS) are particularly concerned about the federal government’s announcement that it will abandon the Indigenous Legal Assistance Program (ILAP) which has provided them with direct funding by Commonwealth governments for the past 50 years.

This is despite the fact that an independent review into ILAP commended the program and recommended it be retained as a standalone program. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) co-chair Cheryl Axleby says the move will reduce ATSILS’ community-control over the strategic direction, priorities and cultural safety of their legal services.

“Without ILAP, ATSILS will no longer have funding certainty and will not be able to ensure culturally safe services are delivered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” she says. “It is vital that we have a specific Commonwealth program addressing the disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the justice system.”

Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service CEO Nerita Waight says the decision is “disappointing and frustrating” and will affect the ability of the service to guarantee service delivery to metropolitan and regional areas and to retain skilled staff.

“It doesn’t take into account our unique position of providing access to culturally appropriate and holistic legal services and the fact that we provide high quality legal services that are really cost effective,” Ms Waight says.

“Our Aboriginal people are constantly over-represented in the justice system and in child protection, people are being put on remand more and more because of the punitive law and order changes that has occurred in last couple of years, and this is going to affect our ability to provide legal assistance to those critically in need.”

LIV president Stuart Webb says he is concerned that changes are being made to the funding of Aboriginal legal services without the proper consultation of those who are actually providing services on the ground.


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