Relief over the federal government’s decision not to go ahead with next week’s $35 million budget cut to community legal centres is continuing to have a ripple effect through Australia.
The 3o per cent cut was due to take effect on 1st July 2017, but last week Attorney-General George Brandis announced the government will instead provide an extra $55.7 million over the next three years to the community legal sector and justice services, as part of the 2017-18 budget.
About $39 million of the total will go to legal centres, with the other $16.7 million specifically targeted to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services.
Australia21 congratulates and thanks the government for its funding decision. It means some of the most vulnerable members of our community will have enhanced legal protection. It represents a small step to reducing inequality in Australia.
On the morning of the announcement, Senator Brandis told the ABC’s AM program the sector would be “delighted”.
The National Association of Community Legal Centres welcomed the lifeline for the stretched services and the people who rely on them.
“We have been working hard over a long period of time to emphasise the vital importance of the services that CLCs provide and the devastating impact cuts would have had,” said NACLC Chief Executive Officer Nassim Arrage.
“The reversal will mean people across Australia will get access to the legal help they were going to be denied from 1 July if the funding cliff went ahead.”
Chipping in their fair share
The announcement came with the usual political point-scoring.
Senator Brandis blamed the expected cuts to the National Partnership Agreement on the Labor Party.
“Most of the funding shortfall was represented by a decision that was made in the last budget of the former Labor government,” he said.
There was also a hint of the old Commonwealth versus States & Territories tussle.
“I am glad that some of the states like New South Wales have increased their contribution and I hope that increase will continue,” Senator Brandis said.
The NSW Liberal-National government delivered an unexpected $6 million over two years to the state’s community legal sectors last month, anticipating the funding shortfall from July.
Community Legal Centres NSW Chair Dr Linda Tucker welcomed that announcement.
“The NSW government has effectively increased its contribution to the sector by 50 per cent, the largest annual increase from the state government for two decades,” said Dr Tucker last month.
“Community legal centres make a little money go a long way. From tenancy and debt help, to child protection and domestic violence, our early intervention work saves people from further emotional and physical harm, preventing knock-on effects across the wider justice and health systems.”
“In 2014 the Productivity Commission recommended an immediate injection of $200 million into the legal assistance sector nationwide, simply to meet existing demand for services.”
In an opinion piece in the The Guardian after the federal government’s announcement early last week, Darren Lewin-Hill from the community legal sector said the restored and extra money would have little impact on a crisis that sees nearly 160,000 people in need turned away each year.
“The impulse to welcome and congratulate the federal government risks absolving Brandis of the needless devastation he has already wrought upon free legal assistance for vulnerable people, and will inflict on the many thousands who will continue to be turned away when the reversal of cuts gives way to the grim reality that funding will remain massively inadequate to meet clear and increasing legal need.”
Is the domestic violence priority genuine?
Attorney-General George Brandis called for domestic and family violence services to be prioritised under the new funding arrangement.
Nassim Arrage from the National Association of Community Legal Centres acknowledged the targeting.
“We understand that this additional funding will be targeted at the family law and family violence work of CLCs. The Government has assured us that they understand the broad and significant flow-on effects family violence can have in a range of areas of law including housing, credit and debt and employment and that the funding can be used for these services.”
In a statement on Facebook, Minister for Women Michaelia Cash talked up the government’s $55.7 million funding boost, which she said would “ensure victims of domestic violence can get assistance when they need it most.”
But late last week, the Sydney Morning Herald carried a piece labelling the government’s commitment to domestic violence ‘hollow’.
In his comment, freelance writer Alex McKinnon called out the Minister and Attorney-General, saying they had pulled this ‘stunt’ before.
“In March 2015, the pair fronted the media and backed down from $25.5 million in planned cuts to legal aid services – 15 months after they were first announced,” he said.
“Once is bad enough. Twice is inexcusable.
“For almost the entire lifespan of this government, the legal aid sector has operated under the constant threat of defunding – never able to plan further ahead than the next budget cycle, constantly forced to divert scarce resources to campaigning and lobbying.”
McKinnon also cited the Productivity Commission recommendation for a real and substantial boost to funding. He warned that domestic violence victims unable to afford legal services will continue to fall into a ‘justice gap.’
“Domestic violence runs the risk of becoming an issue we only care about when something particularly awful happens, because politicians know they can get away with the bare minimum. As Australia continues to feel its way forward on domestic violence, victims deserve more from those meant to protect them.”
Australia21 calls on all governments – federal, state and territory – to set their policies to ensure their support for Australians in legal need is real rather than rhetorical. We believe only fair, sustainable and inclusive public policy can keep our communities healthy.