Indigenous Australians could be more likely to go to jail under an Abbott government, with the Coalition planning to cut $42 million from indigenous legal services if elected.
That is the view of Shane Duffy, the chairman of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS), who said the planned cuts were disappointing after Tony Abbott previously said he hoped to be a ''prime minister for Aboriginal affairs''.
''It's not a good look to start by slashing the program that provides funding to culturally competent legal assistance services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,'' Mr Duffy said.
He said that the services were critical for indigenous people - who were 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal Australians - particularly in areas where there was no other legal help.
If indigenous legal aid groups were forced to reduce services as a result of the cuts: ''People will be left to face court without any advice or representation, which is meant to be a basic right protected in Australia,'' Mr Duffy said.
''Having individuals attend court without representation will clog already heavy court lists, cause catastrophic interruptions to the justice system and arguably increase the likelihood of people going to jail and the perpetuation of the cycle of over-incarceration."
Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey revealed $9 billion in savings under an Abbott government on Thursday, including slashing $42 million over the next four years from the Indigenous Policy Reform Program, which funds Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services across Australia.
Asked what this would involve, Mr Hockey said: ''That deals with legal aid services delivered by contractors at various sites … we're scaling it back by about 20 per cent.''
But shadow attorney-general George Brandis said on Friday that the cut was not expected to affect indigenous legal aid, only policy reform administered under the program.
''Given Labor's fiscal irresponsibility, the Coalition has had to look for savings in the budget to ensure spending is once more under control,'' he said.
NATSILS deputy chair Priscilla Collins said that federal funding for the program fell in one ''bucket'' with no separate funding for policy reform: ''That's going to have a direct impact on our service delivery.''
Indigenous legal services employed a handful of policy officers at a total cost of about $1 million a year, compared with the $5 million a Coalition government would cut from the program in the next financial year.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus added $12 million to indigenous legal aid over two years to help them ''respond to expensive and complex criminal cases'' in the May budget.
The Law Council of Australia's David Neal, SC, said: ''If Aboriginal people get excluded from legal services, they will get thrown back onto the state and territory-based [legal aid] commissions which are already in crisis.''