ACT News

Legal centre cuts set to leave more Canberra women on their own

Legal assistance for Canberra’s most vulnerable women will be slashed by a quarter as a result of Coalition cuts retained in the federal budget, the director of the Women’s Legal Centre has said.

The move to shave the centre’s funding by $100,000 - based on a uniform impact of the $19.6 million reduction nationally - will hit women dealing with domestic violence, relationship breakdown and discrimination.

Centre director Heidi Yates said the funding cuts, which take effect over two years from 2015-16, will lead to an estimated loss of more than 3000 hours of paid and supervised pro bono legal work. 

“We’ll be able to help less women to ensure they get the legal assistance they require to stay safe, and to keep their children safe, and to challenge gender-based discrimination in the workplace such as pregnancy-related discrimination and sexual harassment,” Ms Yates said.

The cuts are understood to be the largest centre-wide reductions in the service's 18-year operation and are expected to lead to the loss of a 0.6 full-time equivalent position from a solicitor staffing level of 2.8 FTE. 

The solicitor said about half of the 1121 women assisted by the Turner-based centre last financial year had been directly affected by domestic violence. 

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One woman who received support from the centre in a three-year custody fight said that, without representation, her children may have been in danger from their repeatedly violent and now jailed father. 

The public servant's $52,000 income left her unable to access Legal Aid to protect her three children.

"I would have had to seek pro bono assistance or get numerous loans, or maybe wouldn't have been able to fight so much and the kids may have been in a position where, God forbid, they would have been exposed again," the woman said. 

"It was a bad enough experience as it was, and to have financials on top of that as well would just be the death of people, I believe. 

"They gave us legal representation, but with that came a lot of emotional and family support for me and the kids ... they kept me going through this process. I just wanted to run and hide to be honest."

Two-thirds of the women assisted by the centre in 2012-13 said they earned less than $35,000 or had no income. 

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus met leaders in the Canberra sector on Wednesday and said he was deeply disappointed the Coalition’s first budget - confirming moves announced in December - had cut the funding for community legal centres nationwide when the need for assistance already was largely unmet.

Mr Dreyfus said the cuts made only a small difference to the budget – estimated to have a $29.8 billion deficit in 2014-15 – but would impact heavily on those unable to receive advice.

“Women across the ACT are experiencing domestic violence, and very often the intervention of a court or a lawyer is needed to help remove their exposure to [that] family violence,” Mr Dreyfus said.

A 2012 economic cost benefit analysis of community legal centres found every government dollar spent on the centres returned a benefit to society 18 times that cost.

The centre does not keep numbers on how many women are unable to access its help, but calls to the separate Domestic Violence Crisis Service, which refers many women to it, have surged almost 50 per cent over the past five years.

No details have been given on where a further $6 million of savings nationally from the community legal sector – kicking in from 2017-18 – will come from.

The cuts to the community legal centres are in addition to the $15 million of savings the government will take from the Legal Aid budget, with the ACT Legal Aid Commission to lose $400,000, the equivalent of 2.5 full-time staff.

A spokesman for Attorney-General George Brandis said the government was still considering arrangements for the years beyond 2014-15 and would be informed by the findings of a Productivity Commission inquiry into access to justice.

“It is the government’s intention that savings will be structured in a way which protects the most vulnerable clients of legal assistance services with legal assistance arrangements to focus on frontline services,” the spokesman said.

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