ACT News

Aboriginal Legal Service forced to find $3 million in savings

The full bench of the Federal Court has pleaded with the Department of Education and its employee to conciliate the case
The full bench of the Federal Court has pleaded with the Department of Education and its employee to conciliate the case  

Major funding cuts to the Aboriginal Legal Service could force "tough" reductions to staff and court support in the ACT and NSW, the organisation says.

The service, which plays a critical role in representing Indigenous Australians in court, is facing the difficult task of gleaning $3 million in savings from its NSW/ACT budget by June. 

There is still uncertainty over the full extent of the cuts, but it is believed federal funding of $13.4 million will be stripped from all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services over the next three years.

Funding the organisation receives for family law and for its Custody Notification Service is also expected to cease in June. 

The service's board is  currently meeting in Canberra, and chief executive officer Phil Naden said it   had tough decisions to make. 

"Until we are informed by the government as to how much we are being cut, we don't know [what effect] the cuts may have on our service delivery in Canberra," he said.


But Mr Naden said the organisation was already struggling to meet the needs of local communities.

"Our aim has been to expand our legal practices so that we can provide legal representation to women and children and families in child protection and family law matters in Canberra, where there is definitely a legal need," he said.

"Our care and protection legal practice could more than quadruple in size and still not go half way in meeting the desperate need Aboriginal families have to prevent their children being removed at rates faster now than at any time during the Stolen Generation.

"Our family law practice could expand exponentially and still not go halfway in meeting the needs families, and particularly mothers, have in sorting out issues relating to children, family violence, separation, and divorce."

The service was currently undertaking a comprehensive review of its operations. 

That review, it said, would likely see reductions to the support it could  offer, and "a reduction in the number of positions required within the organisation".

Mr Naden said the review was  close to being finalised and would  be considered during the board meeting, which ends on Friday.

He said the service was trying to make adjustments to absorb the cuts where it could and avoid impacts on its "daily business" or the provision of quality legal support. 

The December release of a Productivity Commission report, described by some as a "watershed moment" for the community legal assistance sector, urged for increased funding to legal centres.

The report found significant gaps existed in access to justice in Australia, and called for an additional $200 million a year of federal funding.

The commission recommended the federal government reverse cuts to Indigenous legal services.

That report has given Mr Naden some hope that the funding reductions may be wound back.

"The report of the Productivity Commission that has just been released might make the government re-consider the cuts," he said.

"We are working to achieve such a turnaround."

Earlier this month, four local legal centres issued a combined statement deploring recent federal government cuts. 

The federal government stripped more than $300,000 from Legal Aid ACT, $100,000 from the Environmental Defenders' Office, and $50,000 from the Women's Legal Centre.

The Welfare Rights and Legal Centre also faces  $120,000 in cuts over two years, and had  cut a senior solicitor and begun turning people away. 

The agencies said they would welcome funding from all levels of government, a statement that followed Attorney-General Simon Corbell's calls for the federal government to commit to boost resourcing.