Community legal centres face funding crisis

Amanda Alford and James Farrell

Legal need is difficult to measure, fluctuates over time and is influenced by a range of factors, however it is  clear that there is significant legal need in Australia. This has been highlighted by a number of key inquiries and reviews,1 including the key (but conservative and now outdated) Legal Australia–Wide (‘LAW’) Survey, which found that 50 per cent of respondents experienced one or more legal problems in the previous 12 months.2 While unmet legal need is more difficult to measure, the Productivity Commission estimates that ‘around 17% of the population or just over a third of those with any legal problem experienced some form of unmet legal need’.3

In the face of these high levels of legal need, there is significant and growing demand for legal assistance. However, community legal centres (‘CLCs’) and other legal assistance providers, including Legal Aid Commissions (‘LACs’), Family Violence Prevention Legal Services and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services are increasingly unable to meet this demand. For example, the 2013 Australian Council of Social Service (‘ACOSS’) Community Sector Survey revealed that 63 per cent of legal service providers were not able to meet demand, while the 2014 National Association of Community Legal Centres (‘NACLC’) National Census showed that over 150 000 people were turned away from CLCs in 2013–14, in large part due to a lack of resources.4

The result is that people experiencing legal problems in Australia who are unable to afford a private lawyer are increasingly unable to access legal assistance, let alone access to justice.

In the face of this rising demand, CLCs themselves face a funding crisis.

CLCs receive funding from a mix of sources including Commonwealth, state and territory governments, philanthropic grants, donations and fundraising, interest, and other activities. However the majority of CLC funding comes from government.

There are two key funding issues facing CLCs — the first is the imminent threat of significant funding cuts, and the second is chronic and ongoing underfunding of these services.

First, the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services 2015–20 (‘NPA’) provides over $1 billion over four years for LACs and CLCs. However, of this CLCs will receive $40 million in 2015–16, $42.2 million in 2016–17, dropping to $30.1 million in 2017–18 and $30.6 million in 2018–19, a cut of approximately 30 per cent nationally from 1 July 2017.

NACLC estimates that a 30 per cent cut to Commonwealth funding nationally is likely to result in:

  • 36 435 fewer clients assisted;
  • 45 644 fewer advices provided;
  • 42 486 fewer referrals provided;
  • 31 771 fewer informations.5

Secondly, there is systemic underfunding of legal assistance services, highlighted by successive inquiries and reviews.6 Australia is one of the lowest funding nations of legal assistance services on a per capita basis.7 This is compounded by the fact that there is no transparent, public or evidence-based assessment of what overall quantum of legal assistance funding is required to meet legal need in Australia.

As an interim measure, the Productivity Commission has called for an immediate injection of $200 million per year into legal assistance, shared between the Commonwealth government (60 per cent) and state/territory governments (40 per cent). To date, the government has not responded to the Productivity Commission’s Report.

This approach to funding is perplexing in a number of respects, particularly given the value of the work undertaken by CLCs and legal assistance providers, both in terms of the benefit to the community, and in cost savings to government. Indeed, the Productivity Commission highlighted that, in many types of disputes, the avoided or flow-on costs are greater than the cost of providing funding to legal assistance services to provide the assistance.8

Existing underfunding of the sector is already denying hundreds of thousands of people each year access to the legal help they need. Against this backdrop, the impact of a further 30 per cent funding cut to CLCs from 2017 will have devastating consequences for vulnerable and disadvantaged people seeking legal assistance across Australia.

Reversing the funding cuts and committing to increased longer-term investment in CLCs and the legal assistance sector would send a clear message that the Australian government understands that there is a crisis in legal help, recognises the value of the work CLCs undertake, and is committed to assisting people get the legal help they need.

AMANDA ALFORD is Director Policy and Advocacy at the National Association of Community Legal Centres and JAMES FARRELL is Director of Community Legal Centres Queensland Inc.

© 2016 Amanda Alford and James Farrell

REFERENCES

1. See, eg, Productivity Commission of Australia, Access to Justice Arrangements Inquiry Report No 72 (September 2014); Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Reference Committee, Access to Justice (2009); Christine Coumarelos et al, Legal Australia-Wide Survey: Legal Need in Australia (Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, 2012).
2. A range of other surveys and tools have been used in an attempt to measure and understand legal need including, eg, NACLC Legal Needs Assessment Toolkit; Indigenous Legal Needs Project; Australian Council of Social Service, Australian Community Sector Survey 2013: National Report, ACOSS Paper 202 (2013).
3. Productivity Commission of Australia, above n 1, 107 and Finding 2.1.
4. While a significant number, it is a conservative one, as turnaway data is not yet consistently collected by CLCs and these rates do not take into account the large numbers of people who, for a range of reasons often associated with compounded disadvantage, do not seek legal help.
5. National Association of Community Legal Centres, Submission to 2016–2017 Federal Budget (February 2016).
6. See, eg, Productivity Commission of Australia, above n 1; Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Reference Committee, above n 1; Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, Review of Commonwealth Community Legal Services Program (2008); Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Reference Committee Legal Aid and Access to Justice (2004).
7. See, eg, Productivity Commission of Australia, above n 1, 735.
8. Ibid Appendix K, 1054.

(2016) 41(1) AltLJ 2
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