Media Release: Additional Family Violence funding welcome but inadequate

The National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC) welcomes the announcement of an extra $30 million of Commonwealth funding over 3 years for legal assistance services to assist people experiencing family violence.

The Attorney-General George Brandis and Minister for Women Michaelia Cash made the announcement in Brisbane today. The $30 million is part of the extra $100 million allocated in last week’s Federal Budget to implement the Third Action Plan under the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children.

‘We welcome any additional funding for legal assistance services, including Community Legal Centres (CLCs), Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (FVPLS), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) and Legal Aid Commissions (LACs), directed at addressing family violence and this is a positive step,’ NACLC National Spokesperson Daniel Stubbs said.

‘This additional funding adds to the $15 million provided to CLCs and LACs under the Women’s Safety Package and means that we will be able to continue to provide some of the crucial legal help women experiencing family violence need. We also welcome the Government’s commitment to consulting the sector about the best way to allocate the additional funding’.

‘However, we have a number of serious concerns about the funding’.

‘It is difficult to understand why the Government would provide CLCs with some share of $10 million per year as part of this funding, but during the same period cut CLCs by 30% nationally. It is tantamount to paying for a new roof on a house but removing the foundations at the same time’.

‘$10 million per year over three years is a totally inadequate amount for legal assistance services in the face of rising demand and funding cuts. CLCs alone are facing funding cuts of $34.83 million over three years from 1 July next year’.

‘The broader package of $100 million is also insufficient to address family and domestic violence more broadly. We know countless frontline services are facing funding cuts and uncertainty, and the Government’s stated commitment to addressing family violence isn’t backed up by adequate funding’.

‘It is also important to recognise that women experiencing family violence face a range of legal problems. So often CLCs help women with tenancy, debt, social security and employment law issues. It is vital that this is recognised in allocating the funding, and further highlights the importance of reversing the broader funding cuts to the sector’.

‘While we welcome the Government’s statement that the funding will encompass targeted assistance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their children, some proportion of $10 million is just not enough. We know Aboriginal women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised and the crucial role that services like the FVPLS provide, and so additional and specific investment in these services is crucial’.

‘Overall, we look forward to working with the Government in the short-term to implement an appropriate allocation model for this one-off $30 million funding, but also more broadly to see a reversal of the looming funding cuts facing CLCs and adequate and sustainable long-term funding for the entire legal assistance sector,’ concluded Mr Stubbs.

To arrange an interview or for more information please contact:

Daniel Stubbs, National Spokesperson, 0437 253 543
Amanda Alford, Director Policy and Advocacy, 0421 028 645
Jo Scard, Media Adviser, 0457 725 953

Note to Editors

NACLC continues to call on the Federal Government to:

  1. Reverse the $12.1 million funding cut to Community Legal Centres nationally in 2017-2018, the $11.6 million cut in 2018-2019 and the $11.13 million cut in 2019-2020 (amounting to a $34.83 million cut over the period 2017-18 to 2019-2020) under the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services.
  2. Implement the Productivity Commission’s recommendation from its Access to Justice Arrangements Inquiry and provide an immediate injection of $200 million per year into the legal assistance service sector, which should be shared between the Commonwealth (60%) and the States and Territories (40%). This should equate to at least an additional $24 million per year allocated to CLCs ($14.4 million p.a. Commonwealth and $9.6 million p.a. from States and Territories)
  3. Commit to implementing an appropriate process for determining adequate and sustainable longer-term funding contributions to the legal assistance sector by both Federal and State and Territory Governments, in consultation with the sector.

Open letter to the Council of Australian Governments

Dear Prime Minister, Premiers, Chief Ministers and Australian Local Government Association representatives,

We write to you today, ahead of the 1 April 2016 meeting of COAG, to call for your collective resolution of the growing threat of inequity in the access to justice for people across Australia.

Over 216,000 people receive free legal help each year from Community Legal Centres across Australia. Assistance is provided on a range of legal matters including family violence and family law, tenancy, credit and debt and consumer issues. As confirmed by the Productivity Commission[1], government investment in these services makes good economic sense. Community Legal Centres prevent the escalation of often relatively simple issues into complex legal matters that have expensive implications for Legal Aid Commissions and the Courts, as well as other essential community service systems.

Despite this, under the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance (NPA), national funding to Community Legal Centres will be cut by 30% from 2017, equating to $34.83 million between 1 July 2017 and 30 June 2020. Already over 160,000 people have to be turned away each year due to inadequate resourcing. It is clear that more funding is required, not less.

In recognising the critical role played by legal services in preventing and responding to domestic and family violence, the report of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence released this week calls for increased investment in Community Legal Centres.[2]

The Commonwealth’s investment through the Women’s Safety Package is also a clear acknowledgement of the role played by Community Legal Centres in addressing this national priority issue. However, providing additional funding to 10 of the 150 Community Legal Centres funded under the NPA does not equate to the maintenance of the well established supports for this target group provided by Community Legal Centres across Australia.

COAG’s capacity to address its own priority of preventing violence against women and their children now and into the future is significantly undermined by the cuts instituted through the National Partnership Agreement.

Unlike other Commonwealth/State partnerships, the NPA is silent with respect to State and Territory contributions. Not only does the NPA compound the inequity in the access to justice for ordinary Australians between jurisdictions, it fails to provide a mechanism to agree appropriate arrangements for current and future government investment in essential community legal services.

The Commonwealth’s decision to cut funding under the NPA without proposing how this funding shortfall will be addressed is a fundamental example of the risk to funding certainty and durability highlighted in the Reform of Federation White Paper process.[3] Without resolution of this very problematic financial outlook, State and Territory governments will be left to bear the political risk of implementing a reduction in service availability that also has resource implications for other State/Territory funded services.

It is clear that a collaborative federal approach to preventing escalation in the inequity in access to justice is required. This should not only focus on reversing the cuts scheduled under the NPA. It needs to redress the current shortfalls in the system and establish a way for agreeing how legal need is sustainably and equitably addressed into the future.

In recognition of the inadequacy of the current funding arrangements the Productivity Commission has called for an immediate injection of $200 million a year into the broader legal assistance service system, with 60% to be contributed by the Commonwealth Government and 40% by the States and Territories.[4] This recommendation was made to address the most pressing needs whilst a more accurate assessment of future requirements can be conducted. Whilst discussion is required to determine the best distribution of funding across the service system, in keeping with current arrangements, at least 12% of this immediate injection must be provided to Community Legal Centres.

Accordingly, the National Association of Community Legal Centres’ campaign Community Law Australia – Fund Equal Justice calls for:

  1. Reversal of the Commonwealth funding cuts under the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance amounting to $34.83 million over the period 2017/18 to 2019/20;
  1. An immediate injection of $200 million per year into the broader legal assistance service system to be shared between the Commonwealth (60%) and the States and Territories (40%). This should equate to at least an additional $24 million per year allocated to Community Legal Centres ($14.4 million p.a. Commonwealth and $9.6 million p.a. States and Territories).
  1. A commitment by all levels of Government to implementing an appropriate process for determining adequate and sustainable longer-term funding contributions for legal assistance in consultation with the sector.

Open the link to view a PDF of the letter: Open letter to COAG 31 March 2016

[1] Productivity Commission Inquiry Report, Access to Justice Arrangements, No. 72, 5 September 2014

[2] Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, Recommendation 69.

[3] Australian Government, Reform of the federation Discussion Paper (2015) p.5

[4] Productivity Commission Inquiry Report, Access to Justice Arrangements, No. 72, 5 September 2014

Funding certainty call for Indigenous family violence legal help

The Community Law Australia national access to justice campaign calls on the Prime Minister and Attorney-General to guarantee a direct and sustainable funding allocation to the Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (FVPLS) program.

Funding uncertainty for the program and its high-need Indigenous family violence clients has entered a critical phase under new tender arrangements, with the government failing to confirm if legal services are even eligible under guidelines for the Indigenous Advancement Strategy released on 8 August.

“We know the high need of Indigenous women and children for legal help with family violence. Yet this funding uncertainty compounds the deep cuts to the program in December 2013 and the significant cuts to the broader community legal sector advised both in December and as part of the May Federal Budget,” said Carolyn Bond AO, national spokesperson for the Community Law Australia national access to justice campaign.

In December 2013, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet assumed responsibility for the program from the Attorney-General’s Department. Since then the FVPLS program has lost status as a stand-alone program, the basis on which it has operated for the last 16 years.

“We would expect a move to the department of a Prime Minister who claims to champion women and Indigenous people would see special recognition and priority for Indigenous legal help, not moves to downgrade FVPLS from a stand-alone program,” Ms Bond said.

“Indigenous women and children facing family violence require urgent action from the Federal Government, not an attack on the services that provide them with free legal help. They are the real victims of funding cuts to legal help; they are the real victims when vital programs are placed on an increasingly precarious footing,” Ms Bond said.

“We call on the Federal Government to fund the Family Violence Prevention Legal Services program to match its stated commitment to Indigenous people.

“The government should also heed the findings of the recently published Review of the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services, which included Indigenous people within the disadvantaged groups that should be targeted as a priority for legal assistance,” Ms Bond concluded.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 31 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of violence and 15 times more likely to seek support from homelessness services to escape family violence, according to the National FVPLS Forum.

Background

New threat for Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (National FVPLS Forum media release, PDF)

NACLC strongly supports calls by National FVPLS Forum for reinstatement of direct funding (NACLC media release)

ALAF statement of support — Continuation of direct funding for the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (FVPLS) program (ALAF media release)

Review of National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services

Download this media release (PDF)

To arrange an interview

Darren Lewin-Hill on 0488 773 535

Funding provides vital community lawyer support for family violence and first new community legal centre in Melbourne’s fringe since 2005

Community Law Australia today welcomed increased funding to ensure that the Eastern community legal centre (ECLC) could service more people in need of legal help. Continue reading

Protected spaces for family violence victims should be national

Media Opportunity

Launch of Protected Persons Space with Hon Robert Clark, Attorney General and Chief Magistrate Ian Gray, Family Violence advocate Christine – who has used the space and can talk about the intimidation of using the Courts is also available for interview

10.30–11:30am Friday, 9 November 2012

Ringwood Magistrates Court, 39 Ringwood Street, Ringwood

Community Law Australia today urged State and Federal governments to increase their response to family violence matters by increasing community legal assistance to vulnerable women and children, and to take up an initiative being launched today at Ringwood Magistrates court nationally.

The Ringwood Magistrates court, in conjunction with Eastern Community Legal Centre and other agencies, is today launching a safe space, or separate waiting area, for women and children who face intimidation and reliving trauma through the court process.

The project, called Protected Persons Space, responds to vulnerable court users who have felt intimidated and in some cases re-traumatised by having to share the waiting area with the abusive person whom their intervention order was sought against.

Community Law Australia spokesperson Hugh de Kretser welcomed the initiative and said that it was imperative that Australia had the right framework to respond to family violence legal matters.

“When women seek help from the legal system, it is vital that they receive an appropriate response.

“Safe areas such as these are already in place in certain courts in NSW, but ought to be part of the response to family violence across the country.

“We have best practice family violence prevention legislation in Victoria, but that needs to be matched with proper resourcing of community lawyers to meet the surge in demand, as well as proper resourcing for courts and non-legal support services.

“It can be extremely stressful for women to take steps to obtain an intervention order. Separate, safe waiting areas are an important step in reducing that stress, avoiding further trauma and providing an appropriate justice system response to family violence.

“With proper resourcing, we can increase protection and reduce the risks of intervention order breaches. The tragic case of Sargun Ragi and others highlight how imperative it is that the system works properly to protect women facing violence.

  • Family violence is the most common issue community legal centres help Victorians with.
  • Demand for family violence prevention legal services has soared, with services increasing 70 per cent over the past five years.
  • Last financial year, community lawyers in Victoria delivered over 18,000 family violence related legal information, advice and casework services.
  • These services helped vulnerable women and children obtain legal protection from family violence and linked them in with legal and non-legal help on related issues like family law, crimes compensation, debt and housing.

“The legal system is complex and difficult to navigate. We need to ensure that vulnerable women and children are given the very best set of tools to ensure they are safe and their rights are protected.

“This tool kit should involve safe waiting areas for vulnerable court users, and increased access to free legal help for those that need it most,” said Mr de Kretser.

Download this media release (PDF)

Vulnerable women and children need better access to free legal help, earlier

Community Law Australia today urged State and Federal governments to increase access to community legal services to ensure a more effective and supportive response to family violence in Victoria.

Figures released today by the Victorian Federation of Community Legal Centres show that family violence is the most common issue community legal centres help Victorians with. Demand for family violence prevention legal services has soared, with services increasing 70 per cent over the past five years.

Community lawyers provide advice and representation on family violence and relationship breakdown and have duty lawyers in courts across the state helping vulnerable women obtain intervention orders.

Community Law Australia spokesperson Hugh de Kretser said that one of the barriers for vulnerable women and children was the fear of speaking out.

“When women seek help from the legal system, it is vital that they receive an appropriate response. At the moment, this response is being compromised by the pressure on the system, and this creates risks that women won’t get the help they need.

“The demand for help getting an intervention order has soared. Community lawyers in courts across the state are under enormous pressure. We want to be able to help vulnerable women earlier, and provide more detailed assistance, but due to lack of funding we are sometimes only able to see women for 15 minutes before their court hearing. We need a better, more appropriate response.”

“The tragic case of Sargun Ragi highlights the need to ensure the system works properly to protect women facing violence. We need to make sure the system is properly resourced, across domestic violence services, police, courts and community legal services. No system is failsafe but with proper resourcing, we can increase protection and reduce the risks of intervention order breaches.

“The legal system is complex and difficult to navigate. We need to ensure that vulnerable women and children are given the very best set of tools to ensure they are safe and their rights are protected.

“It is also vital that the Victorian Government fund the Coroners Court Systemic Review of Family Violence Deaths, which seeks to learn from tragedies like Sargun Ragi’s case, to prevent future deaths from occurring. The future of this prevention unit is currently in doubt.

 

Volunteers a safety-net for vulnerable women in SA

Hugh de Kretser speaks with (from left), Cheryl Chin, Zita Ngor, Geeta Bansal and Joanna Alexis about the contribution of volunteers to community legal centres.

The recent NACLC national conference saw the launch of compelling data on the contribution of volunteers to community legal centres around Australia.

However, the human face of volunteer efforts and their vital work shone through when we spoke to Zita Ngor, Director of Women’s Legal Service (SA), Joanna Alexis and Geeta Bansal, volunteer lawyers with the service, and to Cheryl Chin, a final year law student and volunteer with Roma Mitchell Community Legal Centre.

Zita said the Women’s Legal Service “relies extensively on the generosity of volunteers. Without them, it would not be possible to deliver our statewide program to vulnerable groups of women”.

With only four full-time solicitors and more than 40 volunteers, the service last year was able to help more than 2,600 women who in many cases had nowhere else to go with urgent problems such as domestic violence and homelessness.

Zita said the challenges faced by these women included not only their own safety, but the safety of their children, and the service was often their “last point of contact”.

Without a recent 40 per cent expansion of the volunteer program, Zita said 40 per cent of the women seen by the service over the last year would have faced “no help whatsoever from anybody”.

In Zita’s experience, women in such vulnerable and precarious situations “sometimes consider taking their own lives”.

Volunteer lawyer Joanna Alexis shared the story of a woman who called the service as she wandered the streets looking for help. Asked what help she needed, the woman replied “help, any help”.

Joanna agreed with Zita that the service was often the last resort for desperate women, and that even in cases where the service could not solve every problem, many women were glad that they were at least able to be heard and given advice.

Three years’ experience at the service has taught volunteer lawyer Geeta Bansal that many women have no idea what their rights are. She said when the service engaged women in a conversation, they were often empowered with a better sense of what they could do to improve their situation. Having more volunteers had improved the capacity of the service to achieve this, she said.

Cheryl Chin is one of more than 250 volunteers at the Roma Mitchell Community Legal Centre, which has no paid staff, and, according to Cheryl, has received no government funding in the past 11 years.

A final year law student, Cheryl agreed that without paid supervision by qualified lawyers, it was difficult to achieve the full benefit of volunteers. Volunteers who had yet to qualify as lawyers helped in a variety of valuable ways, but “can’t provide substantive legal support,” Cheryl said.

Zita acknowledged the range of non-lawyer contributions to the Women’s Legal Service, noting that volunteers included not only legal students, law graduates and private lawyers, but also people offering administrative and specific project support.

Together they worked to meet the “immediate and pressing needs” of vulnerable women, she said.

Commenting on the contribution of volunteers to community legal centres, national CLA spokesperson Hugh de Kretser said that “volunteer and pro bono assistance is crucial, but we can’t take it for granted. It’s no substitute for properly funded legal assistance services”.

For further information, read our media release, “Volunteers vital to community legal services”