By James Elton-Pym
Community legal centres around Australia will no longer have their budgets slashed by $25.5 million over the next two years, federal Attorney General George Brandis announced last week in a reversal of cuts handed down in the 2014 budget.
The announcement came just one day after the Redfern Legal Centre revealed NSW community legal centres had held a “crisis meeting” to discuss ways to stop the cuts shutting them down.
The head of the National Association of Community Legal Centres, Michael Smith, told City Hub the sector was “relieved” the cuts had been reversed.
“Obviously it’s not an increase on where we were before . . . and there’s still huge demand for legal assistance going forward,” he said.
“Lots of community legal centres are turning people away all the time.”
In a media statement released on March 25, the Redfern Legal Centre said the cuts could force it to drop 50 percent of its casework and scrap two practices: one that deals with police complaints and another that handles employmenT and discrimination issues.
“Our police complaints practice is the only state wide service in NSW that focuses on police complaints,” Redfern Legal Centre CEO Joanna Shulman said.
The policy reversal comes after every single one of the state and territory attorneys-general wrote a damning letter to Mr Brandis last month describing the cuts as “short-sighted and ill-conceived”.
A Redfern Legal Centre spokesperson told City Hub the organisation was re-evaluating its position after the reversal and was not yet prepared to comment.
Mr Smith said the government’s push for further action on family violence was one of the reasons for the funding being restored.
“Centres like Redfern undertake fantastic work in a whole broad range of ways but I think that the government has particularly understood the important work around family violence that community legal centres do,” Mr Smith said.
The increased case load resulting from more women speaking out and bringing cases against abusive partners was one of the reasons for the reversal identified in the March 26 statement released by Mr Brandis and Senator Michaelia Cash, the assisting minister for women.
“For too many years, the issue of domestic violence remained behind closed doors – a stigmatised problem that victims were reluctant to speak about. Sadly, as a nation we were reluctant or afraid to speak about it,” the statement read.
“With more victims speaking out about this scourge and seeking help to escape such violence, we are responding accordingly with appropriate resourcing.”
The announcement guaranteed the current level of funding for community legal centres until June 30, 2017.
Mr Smith said the demand for free legal services was “trending up”.
“We’re having more and more demand all the time. I think the family violence work is a particular concern because it’s just going up all the time,” he said.
“There’s still a need to increase the funding to legal assistance across the board. The Productivity Commission said we need about $200 million [extra] right across the legal assistance system . . . that’s the government’s own economists and they don’t give money away easily.”
Mr Smith said the reversal could probably be attributed to the broader community, former clients and legal services themselves “making noise” about the impacts of the cuts.
“Often community legal centres have been vocal about their work to change government policies or change the ways things work in the community but we haven’t always been so vocal about telling the community about the good work we’re doing every day with clients,” he said.
Not every group had its funding restored. Mr Brandis’ statement singled out Environmental Defenders as one body that would still be subject to cuts.