The Federal Government has backed down on its planned cuts to community and Indigenous legal centres, with Attorney-General George Brandis saying the Government is taking a more “nuanced approach” to funding.
Mr Brandis and the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash, announced the reinstatement of $25.5 million over two years to the sector.
“I’m mindful of the fact that this legal assistance sector is resource constrained and in particular it deals with needy and vulnerable people,” Mr Brandis said.
“I have been close to the community legal sector all of my life, many of my friends work in that sector, I needed no explaining how resource constrained that sector is.
“With the passage of time, and a greater appreciation of where the needs lie and where the priorities lie, we’re taking what you might call a more nuanced approach.”
The original announcement in 2013 raised the ire of community and Indigenous legal centres, with many concerned they would have to close.
State and Territory attorneys-general also wrote to Mr Brandis to reverse the existing cuts made to existing legal services, and guarantee no further funding reductions would be made to Legal Aid Commission, Community Legal Centres, and the Aboriginal Legal Service.
Mr Brandis would not comment on whether that advocacy led to the back down.
The Greens argued the funding still did not go far enough to address serious shortfalls in the sector.
“It’s not just affecting the most disadvantaged people, it’s actually affecting middle-income Australians as well,” Greens senator Penny Wright said.
“The commission recommended $200 million more is needed just to address urgent need.
“The Government has to take this seriously, this is an access to justice issue.”
Within the funding package is $11.5 million for Indigenous legal assistance over the next two years.
However, cuts to offices such as the Environmental Defenders Office will still go ahead.
“I made a decision that all of the money that the Commonwealth puts into the legal assistance sector should go to frontline services, should go to case work rather than causes,” Mr Brandis said.
“That approach, clients before causes, has always informed my views of the appropriate allocation of priorities within the legal assistance system.
“That wasn’t a budget-driven decision, it was a moral decision, where there is limited resources and needy people you put the needy people first.”
Advocacy will save future resources: community legal centre
Federation of Community Legal Centres Victoria CEO, Liana Buchanan, said money should have been reinstated to advocacy in the back down.
“The Government’s own economic think tank, the Productivity Commission, has said that advocacy and systemic work makes sense,” she said.
“If there is a policy, or a piece of legislation that is causing unfairness, that means that individual clients have to keep coming to community legal centres and maybe legal aid, and getting help with their individual matter.
“If a community legal centre can identify that issue, work with the Government to try and improve the law and have it changed, then that means all of those individuals won’t need to knock on the door for the centres in the future.”
Ms Cash said the services play an important role in combating domestic violence, which is a major focus for the Government.
“As politicians, as policy makers, as Australians, we need to ensure that in every suburb, in every street, in every house, in every post code, everybody knows that domestic violence is wrong and there are consequences for it,” Senator Cash said.
The Attorney-General said the funding would have to be offset by cuts elsewhere within the budget.