Cutting Aboriginal Legal Services risks entrenching disadvantage

Community Law Australia today urged the Coalition to reconsider proposed cuts of $42 million to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) as a major blow to access to justice.

Tony Abbott has shown commitment to addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage with his statements on Indigenous Affairs, yet cutting funding to ATSILs is a major blow which is likely to entrench disadvantage even further.

Community Law Australia spokesperson Carolyn Bond said: “Cutting funding to the ATSILs does not make sense in terms of reducing barriers to access to justice.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are shockingly over-represented in the justice system being around 15 times more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous Australians. Cutting off access to free legal help will not work to address this problem.

“Indeed, with the knowledge that the Coalition plans to restore funding to Native Title respondents at the same time as cutting free legal help for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – it presents a very chilling picture for an already marginalised group with high legal need.

“Community Law Australia strongly urges the Coalition to rethink the cut to this important part of the legal assistance sector, if they are serious about Indigenous affairs. The services that ATSILs provide, which are now under threat with these proposed cuts include:

• provision of legal advice including telephone advice, referrals, preliminary assistance, writing of letters and completion of forms;

• attendance at court and receipt of instructions by a lawyer – including all mentions, guilty pleas, applications for bail or adjournments performed on a duty lawyer basis

• ongoing legal services in relation to a particular legal problem, such as conducting a defended hearing

• Law reform and policy

“The question remains as to whether this decision will constitute any sort of saving when it is clear that slashing funding at the preventative and early intervention end of the system only passes on the cost burden at a later stage.

“If Tony Abbott is serious about being the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, he needs to look closely at the detrimental effects that cutting funding to this vital legal support network of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal services will cause,” Ms Bond said.

Download the Media Release (PDF)