Community Groups Fight Legal Aid Cuts
24 November 2003 at 12:11 pm
An almost 20% cut in real terms to legal aid since 1996 has worsened social disadvantage — especially that of Indigenous families and communities — according to submissions by ACOSS and community legal groups to a Senate Legal Aid Inquiry hearing in Melbourne.
ACOSS President Andrew McCallum says Federal Government cuts to legal aid funding and inadequate support for community legal services mean that low income Australians are not getting the legal advice they need to obtain proper justice or navigate their way through life’s complexities — from divorce, to renting, to consumer credit issues.
McCallum says the Government’s strict requirement that its legal aid funding only be used for matters of Commonwealth law has also created terrible confusion and difficulties for people whose cases cross jurisdictions.
He says the negative impact of the Government’s cuts & current approach is particularly acute for Indigenous families.
Leanne Miller, National Indigenous Women’s Legal Services spokesperson says that up to 90% of Indigenous Australians in some States prefer to use an Indigenous legal service rather than a mainstream service.
Miller says the Indigenous population increased by 16 per cent between 1996 and 2001 and demand for Indigenous legal services have increased accordingly, yet funding for Indigenous legal services has fallen compared with legal aid funding generally.
She says funding for Indigenous family violence prevention services and women’s legal services is totally inadequate. Despite the Government’s indication of support for this issue, there is no Indigenous Women’s Legal Service in Victoria and the three that exist in Western Australia each receive less than $60,000 a year — a completely unrealistic amount given the level of need and costs of outreach in remote areas.
She says the Commonwealth’s policy of only providing legal aid for matters arising under federal laws indirectly discriminates against Indigenous people and particularly against Indigenous women who typically do not use the family law system and need family law help of other kinds to ensure the safety and rights of their children and themselves.
Naomi Brown, national spokesperson for rural and remote Community Legal Centres says Community Legal Centres in some areas have clients who are forced to travel 1000 kilometres in a bus so Family Court counsellors can interview their children for welfare reports.
Brown says it is wrong for the Government to assess need only by the number of legal aid applications. They should also take into account low family incomes, remoteness, education and employment levels as well as the incidence of violence in the community.
She says a new national survey of legal requirements that underpins investment and service development so that people living in rural and remote and areas get fairer access to justice is urgently needed.
Andrew McCallum says that as first steps, the Federal Government should provide a $111 million legal and family support package that:
– Reinstates the funding lost to legal aid since 1996 ($25 million a year) and increases community legal centre funding ($24 million) to meet staffing and overheads as well as the costs of operating in rural and remote areas.
– Expands Indigenous family support and violence prevention services
including Indigenous Family Violence Prevention Legal Services ($40 million).
– Boosts ATSIS funding to Indigenous legal services ($22 million) and establishes triennial funding — it is impossible for services to properly function when their funding is up for grabs every 12 months.
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