Canberra community lawyers welcome backflip on cuts to 'under-funded' sector
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Canberra community lawyers welcome backflip on cuts to 'under-funded' sector

Lawyers have welcomed the federal government's reversal of savage funding cuts to community legal centres but warned the backflip was a "band-aid solution" as services continued to face growing demand for legal help from vulnerable Canberrans.

The community legal sector had braced for a nationwide budget cut of 30 per cent, or about $34 million, to its core funding over three years from July, a move that would have restricted assistance for domestic violence victims and Indigenous Australians.

Canberra Community Law solicitors Anusha Goonetilleke and Genevieve Bolton have welcomed the federal government's backflip on legal funding for the chronically underfunded community legal aid sector. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Canberra Community Law solicitors Anusha Goonetilleke and Genevieve Bolton have welcomed the federal government's backflip on legal funding for the chronically underfunded community legal aid sector. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Under the planned cuts, about $315,000 in federal funding was set to be shaved from Canberra's community legal centres. The proposal was met with strong and sustained resistance by the ACT's legal sector, with lawyers rallying in protest.

Attorney-General George Brandis​ on Monday instead vowed $56 million would be set aside in next month's budget to be poured into community legal centres and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services over three years.

ACT Law Society president Sarah Avery, who last year put pressure on Mr Brandis to rethink the cuts, was "delighted" the legal fraternity's lobbying efforts helped secure the government's backflip.

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She said the decision highlighted the crucial role of the legal profession in speaking up for disadvantaged citizens.

"This is a real win for access to justice in the ACT and around Australia generally."

Legal Aid ACT chief executive John Boersig​ said he was thrilled more money would go to those services and said the funding boost would benefit Canberra's legal fraternity more broadly.

"Where other services aren't appropriately funded within the sector, the work falls back on the Legal Aid Commission. It's in all our interests."

But while Canberra Community Law executive director Genevieve Bolton welcomed the promised boost to funds, she said the centre still faced an uncertain future and a shortfall of about $173,000 in federal funding.

"Although framed as new money, in reality this announcement is a band aid over funding cuts which were due to take effect from July 1," she said.

Street Law supervising solicitor Anusha Goonetilleke​, who oversees the centre's specialist homelessness service, said the organisation remained in limbo until the government revealed precisely how the funds would be distributed.

"The difficulty for us is we haven't got a breakdown for each state and territory, or each centre.

"It's a really difficult situation because we just don't know what the reversal will mean."

Ms Bolton said the service, which offered help to low-income and vulnerable Canberrans on matters ranging from Centrelink and tenancy problems to homelessness and disability discrimination, provided more than 1700 pieces of advice each year.

Its specialist services already struggled to meet high demand from Canberra's most vulnerable citizens due to chronic underfunding and uncertainty, she said.

"If these funds are not reinstated we estimate that this would mean over 200 disadvantaged individuals and families every year will have to face courts and tribunals without critical legal advice and representation."

Ms Bolton said a 2014 Productivity Commission report on access to justice recommended a $200 million investment in the community legal sector nationally to meet demand.

"Funding by Commonwealth and ACT governments only goes a small way to addressing Canberra's growing need for these legal services," she said.

She said the service had prepared a budget submission for the ACT government in the lead-up to the June budget.

Megan Gorrey is a reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald. She was previously a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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