Comment

George Brandis should see community lawyers in action before cutting our funds

We are about to go off a cliff – $35 million over three years could be slashed from the collective budgets of Community Legal Centres nationally.

It's a scary scenario.

George Brandis is welcome to visit the Canberra Community Law at any time.
George Brandis is welcome to visit the Canberra Community Law at any time. Photo: Daniel Munoz

Not because my job, or the jobs of my staff are at risk – that's another matter.

It's scary because thousands of vulnerable people across Canberra, hidden in the cracks of our city, will no longer have anyone to turn to for help or legal advice.

Before we reach this scenario, I'd like to extend an open invite to Australia's Attorney-General, senator George Brandis, to visit us at Canberra Community Law.

You are welcome, any time. Perhaps you can stay for a day, observe a legal advice session at one of the refuges we visit, meet our clients, hear first hand some of their stories. I assure you, many are heart wrenching.

Our clients include homeless people, survivors of domestic abuse, single parents, young people, and people with a disability.

And what's somewhat amazing is just how easy it was for some of them to land in the situations they now face: a lost job, a divorce, a death in the family, a mental health illness, an abusive spouse.

These could be our friends, our family members, our neighbours.

They are real people, and they need help – and they are vulnerable particularly because the odds are stacked against them. Community Legal Centres are often a vulnerable person's last resort. With no one to turn to for legal help or support their vicious spiral will continue to rotate perpetually downward. And the end to the story could be tragic.

You may not think there are many of these 'vulnerable people' in the ACT. You may not see people sleeping rough outside shopfronts on your regular commute to work, or your evening suburban jog. Unfortunately, simply not seeing a problem does not mean it does not exist, as Canberra has a serious problem with homelessness. Overall, in the six years prior to 2014-15 there was a 65 per cent increase in the number of people seeking assistance from the homelessness sector.

Canberra's homeless are hidden in cars, in temporary housing, in refuges. It is clear to us that at this point, many of our clients have lost hope. Lost hope in the legal system which they feel is stacked against them, lost hope in politicians who they believe have failed to fulfil their promises, and lost hope in society who they feel continues to turn a blind eye.

These feelings are not entirely without merit nor are they misguided. They are based on a learned and lived experience.

Take Serena (not her real name) for example, who fled her abusive spouse, with her children and little more than the clothes on their backs. Serena was referred to us by a women's refuge, as she faced myriad problems. She had been left to deal with debts and fines accrued by her ex-spouse. She was also having real difficulties finding permanent, safe and affordable housing. Due to the traumatic nature of her experiences, Serena was unable to explain her situation to the relevant parties she needed to communicate with to deal with these issues. Without proper assistance, women like Serena may fall deeper into debt, find themselves and their children without a home, or feel forced to return to their abusive relationship.

This is where we come in.

We were able to assist Serena deal with her debts and outstanding fines, helping her regain some financial independence. The support and advocacy we provided relieved Serena of a significant burden. She was able to focus her energy on building relationships with groups in the community who assisted her in finding a permanent and stable home, and she and her children have begun to build a new life.

Community legal centres have their heart in their community. We are here to help people find their feet again. We are here to give people voices. We are here because we care.

We are also well aware, in our sector, of the need to tighten budgets; and excel at performing or duties diligently, with compassion, in a resource-strapped environment.

But when we operate on bare-bones budgets already, how can we be expected to deliver adequate services to our clients with 30 per cent less funding?

It is simply not possible, and we will be forced to turn away some of Canberra's neediest people. It doesn't seem like a very fair, very Australian outcome.

So please, Senator Brandis, accept our invitation, come and see our work in action, witness our impact. It is essential you do so as a matter of priority, so that your decision regarding the future funding of Community Legal Centres is fully informed.

Genevieve Bolton is the executive director/principal solicitor of Canberra Community Law, and the recipient of the Australian Human Rights Commission's 2015 Law Award.