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Justice – Successful fight for funding in round 1 of the bout

Justice – Successful fight for funding in round 1 of the bout

By Belinda Wilson

Access to Justice 

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With a sigh of relief, the federal government has cancelled funding cuts to community legal centres and Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Legal Services. We all know that this was a very close call, too close for comfort, and would have had a disastrous impact on those that are disadvantaged, falling through the widening justice cracks.

Those CLCs that had announced they would have to cut back on their services were:

  • The Goulburn Valley  CLC, which said it would have to let go of its dedicated family lawyer
  • Loddon Campaspe CLC, which said it would lose $121,000 and have to cut back on advice and casework services to 250 people a year
  • The Hume Riverina Community Legal Service which would lose a full-time lawyer – which means that it will have to turn away a further 500 people a year
  • The Yarra Ranges office branch of the Eastern Community Legal Centre would have had to close – it serves the Aboriginal community around Healesville as well as women escaping family violence
  • The Women’s Legal Service said it would have to cut back duty lawyers for women facing court in family matters and sexual offence trials
  • The Young People’s Legal Rights Centre, also known as Youthlaw, would have had to cut its partnerships with Headspace centres around Victoria where it provides free legal advice to young people

The proposed cuts would have also threatened the essential work of already underfunded Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Legal Services (ATSILS).

In 2014, the Productivity Commission recommended that free legal assistance services needed to be boosted by $200 million a year. The Commission also recognised that the “inevitable consequence of unmet legal needs is a further cementing of the longstanding over-representation of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system”. Despite numbering one out of every fifty Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people are now one in four prisoners.

The Government says it will now commit an additional $55.7 million over the next three years, with $39 million going to Community Legal Centres and $16.7 million to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.

It is times like this that our profession can provide a strong, loud and united voice, rallying for what is right and necessary.  Leading up to the Federal government’s decision not to implement 30% funding cuts, there was a strong campaign lead by those in the CLC and ATSILS sector, as well as the LCA, the presidents of all Australian law societies together with the LIV. 

While the LIV applauds the decision to reinstate the funding, it remains the fact that CLCs, ATSILS and legal aid are still chronically underfunded.  Per capita, Australia spends only half that of the UK on legal aid.

As members of our legal profession, we know that CLCs are the fabric of the community, playing a larger part than what is often depicted in the media.  From a practitioner’s point of view, and in addition to the services that they provide to their clients, CLCs provide:

  • a useful training ground for law students and lawyers
  • take some of the pressure off local law firms who also provide a great deal of pro bono advice
  • first face to the legal profession for some clients 
  • for those clients that need additional support, the CLCs provide the necessary triage

Whilst we have the federal government’s ear on funding, adequate funding for Legal Aid is an ongoing conversation: http://www.legalaidmatters.org.au/.

Here’s to winning Round 2 of the fight.

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Legal Services organisation contributed to this blog.


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