: Federal Budget cuts to community legal centres

Federal Budget cuts to community legal centres

Liana Buchanan

In the week of the May Federal Budget, community legal centres learned of several decisions they say will cut free legal help and further reduce access to justice.

Fifty seven centres across Australia have been told they will lose funding in 2015–16 and 2016–17. These cuts represent a funding loss in each of those years of around $6 million and will affect the last two years of four-year funding agreements signed by the former government. This funding has been used to open new outreach offices, provide new family violence duty lawyer services, extend advice clinics for the homeless and deliver other, much needed frontline services.

Cuts to the 57 centres are part of a broader $43.1 million cut to legal assistance services — including the Environment Defenders Offices, Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Family Violence Prevention Legal Services and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Legal Services — announced in December 2013.

In addition, the Budget disclosed new cuts planned for community legal centres in 2017–18. This will see Commonwealth funding for community legal centres reduced by over 26 per cent between now and 2017–18. The cuts have occurred in the context of acknowledged unmet demand for legal help, a review of the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services and the current Productivity Commission Inquiry into Access to Justice Arrangements.

Attorney-General George Brandis has also signalled that, from next month, funding agreements with community legal centres will preclude the use of Commonwealth funds for law reform and policy work. Centres argue this is core work for community legal centres, enabling them to use their contact with thousands of clients weekly to identify unfair laws and policies and work to change them. The Attorney-General’s position on this issue is contrary to that of the Productivity Commission, which recently found law reform and policy to be an efficient, effective use of scarce legal assistance resources.

LIANA BUCHANAN is the executive officer of the Federation of Community Legal Centres.

(2014) 39(2) AltLJ 138
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