Uncertainty remains for Canberra's community lawyers as federal cuts loom
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Uncertainty remains for Canberra's community lawyers as federal cuts loom

Uncertainty reigns for two of Canberra's community legal centres as they wait to see how federal cuts which could mean hundreds of disadvantaged people miss out on legal advice are divided.

Canberra's homeless and women unable to afford private legal advice would be worst hit by the federal cut in the funding pool for community legal centres.

Canberra's homeless and women unable to afford private legal advice would be worst hit by the federal cut in the funding pool for community legal centres.Credit:Wolter Peeters

Women's Legal Centre executive director Elena Rosenman said 300 low-paid women in Canberra would have to go through family and employment disputes without a lawyer's advice if the centre lost a potential $150,000 next financial year, part of a 28 per cent cut in the ACT's federal funding.

"The women who come to us for advice and assistance have no other options," she said.

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"The kind of insecurity [the cuts] create to try and have a functioning, sustainable service is immense."

Ms Rosenman has joined Canberra Community Law executive director Genevieve Bolton, also set to be hit hard by the cuts, in calling for the re-elected Coalition government to reconsider its position.

The ACT government now administers the federal funding for the CLCs and makes the choice on how future shortfalls are divided. They could decide to spread the shortfall across other CLCs not previously federally-funded, or fill the gap themselves.

Ms Rosenman said the centre assisted more than 1000 women last year to negotiate safe arrangements for care and contact of their children, reach a just division of property arrangement with ex-partners, secure compensation after a violent crime or be paid fairly for their employment.

Ms Bolton said her centre, the only specialist legal advisers for those who are homeless, would lose about $170,000 a year from next July if its historical portion of federal funding was retained, forcing the loss of two of the eight full-time lawyer roles.

"The cuts will come at the same time as the ACT has the second highest rate of homelessness per capita in Australia [and] there are approximately 2000 homeless people every night in Canberra," she said.

"The impact of the funding cuts will mean that some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people will be waiting longer times to get critical legal help to access income support payments, secure housing, prevent eviction and deal with a myriad of other issues including debts, traffic fines, employment and discrimination," she said.

Both legal centre leaders said they would be speaking to Canberra's federal politicians, but also to all sides of politics in the run up to the ACT election.

The 28 per cent cut refers to the shift between 2015-16 and 2017-18 funding, with $807,000 of federal funding for ACT CLCs next year. There was a 5 per cent cut this year.

A spokeswoman for federal Attorney-General George Brandis said federal funding to the Women's Legal Centre had increased by nearly 60 per cent since 2010. The centre recently received an extra $350,000 in funding under the domestic violence-focused Women's Safety Package.

ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell announced in May that clients of Canberra Community Law and the Women's Legal Centre were exempt from court and tribunal costs.

Reporter at The Canberra Times

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