Productivity Commission urges more funding for legal assistance, defends advocacy by publicly funded community legal centres

In its final report on access to justice arrangements released today, the Productivity Commission has recommended significant additional funding to help people with a range of civil legal problems such as family violence, employment, housing and debt, which have a significant impact on the lives of many Australians.

The Commission called for better evidence on legal and unmet legal need in Australia, and for governments to report annually on the extent of any failure to meet agreed coverage and priorities.

‘This report should mark a watershed moment in legal assistance in Australia. The Productivity Commission has recognised the severe social and economic impacts of an inaccessible justice system, and it has acknowledged the system is badly underfunded.

‘The report provides strong arguments against the deep cuts inflicted on community legal sector in the last Federal Budget and indicates the immediate reversal of those cuts and a significant increase in funding are needed,’ said Community Law Australia national spokesperson, Carolyn Bond AO, today.

‘Instead of massive cuts, this report is calling for the injection of $200 million to legal assistance services including community legal centres, Aboriginal legal services and legal aid. We support that as a starting point to ensure that access to legal help does not depend on your capacity to pay for a private lawyer,’ Ms Bond said.

The report notes that legal assistance funding in Australia is less than a third of per capita levels in the UK.

The Commission also endorsed the use of public funds by community legal centres for advocacy and law reform, with a specific recommendation that they be funded as a core activity.

This strengthens the Commission’s position expressed in its draft report, and runs counter to measures introduced by the Federal Government in July to limit law reform activities by community legal centres using Federal funds.

‘The Commission has rightly acknowledged the value of community legal centres working to resolve individual cases, and learning from those cases to argue for improvements in the law to prevent problems arising in the first place. The report clearly notes that advocacy and law reform by community legal centres can address underlying problems and reduce the demand for frontline services.

‘The Federal Government should acknowledge the findings of the Commission and immediately remove restrictions on advocacy and law reform using public funds,’ Ms Bond said.

Ms Bond congratulated the Commission on its detailed recommendations to improve access to justice in Australia, and urged the Federal Government to engage the community legal sector in framing its response.

The Productivity Commission’s report on access to justice arrangements can be accessed here:

http://www.pc.gov.au/projects/inquiry/access-justice/report

Download this media release (PDF)

To arrange an interview

Darren Lewin-Hill on 0488 773 535

National conference hears widespread concerns over restrictions on advocacy by community legal centres

Thursday 14 August 2014 – for immediate release

A national conference of community legal centres in Alice Springs has heard widespread concern over the impact on disadvantaged clients of restrictions on use of federal funding for advocacy, policy and law reform.

The restrictions place at risk effective law reform work that can prevent legal problems arising in areas such as family violence, homelessness and disability.

The restrictions introduced on 1 July run counter to a draft Productivity Commission finding that advocacy and law reform are central to community legal work.

In practice the broader effect of the restrictions will be that many centres decide not to speak publicly about any issue over fears their funding may be at risk.

The restrictions coincide with significant funding cuts to community legal centres through MYEFO and the May Federal Budget.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus will address the national conference at the Alice Springs Convention Centre 1.30pm today together with Emeritus Professor Jim Ife, of the Centre for Human Rights Education, Curtin University.

Community legal centres provide free legal help for people who do not qualify for legal aid, but cannot afford a private lawyer – a group that includes a large number of disadvantaged people, including, for example, homeless people and women facing family violence. A conservative estimate by the Australia Institute has found that 500,000 people miss out on legal help every year in Australia.

Available for comment:

Carolyn Bond AO, National Spokesperson, Community Law Australia
Liana Buchanan, Chair, Community Law Australia
Michael Smith, National Convenor,
National Association of Community Legal Centres.

To arrange media comment:

Darren Lewin-Hill
0488 773 535
Communications Manager
Federation of Community Legal Centres

Budget cuts to free legal help hit vulnerable and isolated Victorians

Vulnerable people in outer-suburban and regional Victoria are less likely to get the legal help they need as Federal Government cuts to community legal centres roll out nationally.

“As the human impact of these cuts emerges, it’s becoming clear that they’re hitting vulnerable and isolated Victorians, people who are already missing out and who need help the most,” said Carolyn Bond AO, national spokesperson for Community Law Australia, today.

In addition to $19.6 million cuts to community legal centres nationally, announced last December, there was an additional $6 million cut in the recent Federal Budget. Ms Bond said that despite the Federal Government’s claims that the cuts would not hit frontline services, this was exactly what was happening.

“Victorian community legal centres will either need to reduce the number of lawyers available to help people, turn away more people seeking help, limit the range of problems they can address, or restrict the regional areas they can cover,” Ms Bond said.

Two of the fourteen affected organisations are in regional Victoria, seven in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, and three are statewide specialist legal services.

Services likely to be affected by the cuts include:

• Family violence lawyers helping people with intervention orders;
• Specialist legal advice for regional and remote young people;
• Legal help across high-need, complex, and culturally diverse regional areas.

Lisa Maree Stevens of the Murray Mallee Community Legal Centre, said funding cuts would likely mean that 80–100 vulnerable clients, including Aboriginal women, would miss out on legal help each year if the centre had to cut back on its intervention order assistance and outreach.

“We cover a large geographic area, and our lawyers visit a number of disadvantaged communities, as well as a number of regional courts. When we have to cut back these services next year, there are no other services to pick up this vital work,” Ms Stevens said today.

Ariel Couchman from Youthlaw said their Skype program had been very successful, delivering legal help to young people who couldn’t physically get to services in the big towns and cities.

“The disadvantaged young people we help are facing very tough times in regional and remote Victoria. They are often reluctant to seek help even with homelessness and other serious social problems. Even fewer will do so if our Skype legal advice service is reduced as a result of these cuts,” Ms Couchman said.

Peter Noble from the Goulburn Valley Community Legal Centre said the centre was likely to lose one of its three lawyers, who provide legal help across northern central Victoria stretching from Seymour to the Murray River, including the City of Greater Shepparton, one of Australia’s most complex, needy and culturally rich communities.

“We work with other local services to help people address underlying problems, prevent further legal issues arising, and relieve pressure on the courts and legal system. The disadvantaged people we help are usually not equipped to deal with their legal problems on their own, but funding cuts will mean that some of these people will miss out,” Mr Noble said.

Michael Smith from the Eastern Community Legal Centre said funding cuts placed their new services in the Yarra Ranges, and their family violence work, at serious risk. He said both these services had been provided in response to areas of high legal need.

“Without funding, our services must be reduced and people in need will miss out,” Mr Smith said.

“Even before these damaging cuts, community legal centres were already grossly underfunded and struggled to meet increasing demand for help with serious legal problems from people unable to afford a private lawyer. These cuts will only make that situation worse,” Ms Bond said.

“We know that community legal centres are already very efficient in the help they provide, and that nationally at least 500,000 Australians miss out on legal help every year. The answer is funding community legal centres properly to meet increasing need, not cutting their funding,” Ms Bond said.

Further information

Brandis ties NGO funding to non-advocacy

Brandis restrictions starting tomorrow seek to silence community legal centres speaking out on unfair laws, policies and practices

Last chance to be heard for law services, fighting to protect the most vulnerable

Advocacy and frontline services vital to achieve access to justice

Federal budget cuts to community legal centres in the news

Economic benefit of community legal centres strong, says cost benefit analysis

Community legal centres accuse Federal Government of gagging

Download this media release (PDF)

To arrange an interview

Darren Lewin-Hill on 0488 773 535

Budget cuts place free legal help further out of reach for South Australians

People in South Australia are less likely to get the legal help they need, as the Federal Government continues to cut funds to community legal centres.

In addition to $19.6 million cuts to community legal centres nationally, announced last December, there was an additional $6 million cut in the recent Federal Budget.

“The Federal Government says ‘frontline legal services will not be affected’ but these funds currently support significant frontline services,” said Carolyn Bond AO, national spokesperson for Community Law Australia, today.

“South Australian community legal centres will either need to reduce the number of lawyers available to help people, turn away more people seeking help, limit the range of problems they can address, or restrict the regional areas they can cover,” Ms Bond said.

The kinds of impacts these cuts could have include:

  • Thousands of women experiencing family violence denied free legal help;
  • People who want to challenge a decision that affects their income may not be able to get free legal help, particularly those in some regional areas;
  • People who can’t afford a private lawyer for family law, tenancy or debt issues may be turned away by free services, or may need to travel hundreds of kilometres to find help.

Zita Ngor from the Women’s Legal Service SA said the service gave legal help and advice to thousands of women each year.

“We fear we could lose up to half of our funding, which would not only impact on women experiencing family violence who would be turned away, but on their families, on the courts, and on community and health services,” she said.

Mark Leahy from the Welfare Rights Centre SA, which helps people with Centrelink problems, said that for many of their clients, being able to deal with a dispute with Centrelink can significantly impact on a family’s financial security.

“With the funding cuts proposed, we may have no option than to reduce our work in areas such as Cardinia and Port Augusta, where there is high demand and nowhere else for people to turn,” he said.

“Even before these damaging cuts, community legal centres were already grossly underfunded and struggled to meet increasing demand for help with serious legal problems from people unable to afford a private lawyer. These cuts will only make that situation worse,” Ms Bond said.

“We know that community legal centres are already very efficient in the help they provide, and that nationally at least 500,000 Australians miss out on legal help every year. The answer is funding community legal centres properly to meet increasing need, not cutting their funding,” she said.

Alan Merritt from the South Australian Council of Community Legal Services said the State Government provided some funds to community legal centres, and state funding for a new Consumer Credit Legal Service was good news for South Australia. However, with the level of demand for help, a greater commitment was needed from Federal and State governments – not a reduction in Federal funding.

Community legal centres give free legal help to disadvantaged Australians experiencing relationship breakdown, workplace mistreatment, family violence, debt, eviction, homelessness and other legal problems that severely impact their lives. They address the growing gap between people who qualify for legal aid, and those who can afford a private lawyer.

As well as these cuts, the Government has stopped centres doing any policy or law reform work with their funding.

“While it’s a small part of their overall work, community legal centres are in a position to identify repeat problems based on the experiences of their clients to bring about changes that prevent problems in the first place,” Ms Bond concluded.

Further information

Federal budget cuts to community legal centres in the news

Economic benefit of community legal centres strong, says cost benefit analysis

Community legal centres accuse Federal Government of gagging

Last chance to be heard for law services, fighting to protect the most vulnerable

Brandis restrictions starting tomorrow seek to silence community legal centres speaking out on unfair laws, policies and practices

Advocacy and frontline services vital to achieve access to justice

Download this media release (PDF)

To arrange an interview

Darren Lewin-Hill on 0488 773 535

ACT Attorney-General reveals benefits of law reforms initiated by a community legal centre

Simon Corbell, the ACT Attorney-General, revealed today that reforms introduced a year ago have allowed more than 3,000 vulnerable people to keep their driver licences, reducing their risk of job loss, and helping to cut red tape. To date almost $1million in fines have been recovered by the Government through the new process, with another $3.5 million currently set to be recovered under the new management plan.

The problems faced by vulnerable people who lose their licence because they are unable to pay a fine in full had been identified by Street Law, a program of Welfare Rights Centre. In November 2011, Street Law published a report about the negative impacts of the existing system of enforcing traffic fines.

The report outlined the fines system in Canberra, which did not allow people to pay fines by instalment, and automatically suspended peoples’ driver licences after 56 days. Once the 56 days had elapsed, a person could not challenge the fine in court or seek a court-ordered instalment plan. A person’s licence simply remained suspended until they could pay the fine in full. As a result of the system, many people had their licences suspended because they could not afford to pay their fines.

In May 2012, the ACT Greens, with the support of the Government, passed new laws to address this problem.

This is a clear example of how community legal centres are often in a unique position to identify the impact of laws or processes on disadvantaged people. While there are many examples that illustrate the importance of this work, the ACT Attorney-General has produced concrete figures that illustrate the benefits of changes resulting from a CLC’s policy work.

Policy and law reform work by community legal centres can improve processes and laws, and prevent future problems arising. Governments and law reform bodies regularly seek the views of centres.

The ban on any policy or advocacy work with Government funding (by the Federal Government and some state governments) will stop many centres undertaking this valuable work. There must be a rethink.

Brandis restrictions starting tomorrow seek to silence community legal centres speaking out on unfair laws, policies and practices

National access to justice campaign Community Law Australia has rejected as damaging and counter-productive new restrictions on the law reform and policy advocacy work of Federally funded community legal centres that will come into force tomorrow.

“These restrictions will stand in the way of fixing serious legal problems for many disadvantaged people and should be abandoned before they begin,” said Carolyn Bond AO, national spokesperson, today.

“The Federal Government should recognise the value and efficiency of community legal centres putting forward their views on how laws, policies and practices can be improved or better enforced to deliver just outcomes. They do so based on the experience of seeing thousands of people every year,” Ms Bond said.

The restrictions are being driven by Federal Attorney-General George Brandis, who wants centres to focus exclusively on “frontline services”, a position starkly at odds not only with the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into access to justice arrangements, but with views recently expressed by social services minister Kevin Andrews in response to gag fears in the welfare sector.

“While law reform and policy advocacy are a small part of community legal centre work, they are a vital part.

“Community legal centres can’t be silent on law reform to protect women and children from family violence. They can’t be silent on advocating better policies to protect people from predatory money lenders and mortgage brokers. They can’t be silent when speaking out can mean thousands of legal problems could be prevented before they become individual cases of people walking through the already-crowded doors of community legal centres.

“The Federal Government shouldn’t expect silence from community legal centres facing a flawed and unjust legal system where unfair laws left in place unchallenged will inevitably fuel the crisis levels of demand for free legal assistance in Australia,” Ms Bond said.

The restrictions on law reform and policy advocacy follow deep cuts to community legal centres through MYEFO and the recent Federal Budget. One-off grants to a small number of community legal centres announced last week were welcome, but heavily outweighed by the overall cuts, Ms Bond noted.

The Attorney-General claims community legal centres will still be able to engage in law reform and policy advocacy, but not with Federal funds. Ms Bond said this failed to acknowledge the significant unfunded contribution community legal centres already made across a range of areas.

“The Federal Government should also know that by further cutting funds to an already chronically underfunded sector, they are directly impacting vital frontline services,” Ms Bond said.

She called on the Federal Government to affirm its support for law reform and policy advocacy, even where calls for necessary change sometimes questioned existing government policies.

Further information

Last chance for law services to be heard, fighting to protect the most vulnerable

Advocacy and frontline services vital to achieve access to justice

Federal budget cuts to community legal centres in the news

To arrange an interview

Darren Lewin-Hill on 0488 773 535

Download this media release (PDF)