The recent Federal budget saw funding cuts to many community services, not least Goulburn Valley Community Legal Centre (a division of Loddon Campaspe CLC), which will lose $200,000 (over 2015/16, 2016/17).
But the budget cuts aren’t the whole story. In a double whammy, the Federal government is also restricting the use of their funding to direct service delivery, effectively excluding important preventative policy and law reform work with federal funds.
The Federal budget means that Goulburn Valley CLC now risks losing its third full-time lawyer. As a result, an increased number of vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our community will lose their only access to free legal assistance.
Goulburn Valley CLC aspires to a therapeutic justice model that takes a holistic approach to casework, thereby seeking to minimise the costs of re-offending to the courts, clients and community. We work with other local agencies, such as Primary Care Connect, to help people address the problems underlying their offending, for example mental health and substance abuse issues. The funding cut will not only further reduce already stretched services to the most needy in our community, it will probably increase costs to the community through re-offending.
The cuts were announced just one month after the Productivity Commission handed down its draft report into Access to Justice Arrangements. It was premature to make such cuts without the benefit of the Commission’s work being completed and made public so that the targeting of any cuts is evidence-based and transparent. This is especially so given that one of the draft report’s key points was that “Disadvantaged Australians are more susceptible to, and less equipped to deal with, legal disputes. Governments have a role in assisting these individuals. Numerous studies show that government funded legal assistance services generate net benefits to the community.”
Preventative policy work sidelined
Running parallel to the budget cuts, Community Legal Centres (CLCs) are no longer allowed to use Commonwealth funds to advocate for law or policy changes.
The Federal Attorney-General, George Brandis, wants CLCs to concentrate on the delivery of “frontline” services. He argues that in an era when finances are stretched, the bottom line demands that CLCs focus their attention on service delivery. Yet we can’t help wondering if this restriction will only deliver a false economy and dulls the ability of policy makers to respond to community needs.
One of the defining characteristics of CLCs is their capacity to make the link between casework and law and policy reform, or systemic advocacy. CLCs, Legal Aid Commissions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services are ideally placed via their casework to identify systemic inequalities that impact on marginalised members of the community. Systemic advocacy work has been a key characteristic of the work of community legal centres since they began 40 years ago. It not only contributes to a more just legal system, it helps to ensure a more efficient legal system.
The Productivity Commission’s April 2014 draft report clearly identified the value of CLC’s law reform and policy work, including its capacity to prevent legal problems from arising in the first place: “Legal assistance providers [Legal Aid Commissions and CLCs] are uniquely placed to identify systemic problems affecting disadvantaged Australians (given the number of cases that they see). Advocacy can also be an efficient way to use limited taxpayer dollars.”
The report noted that “effective strategic advocacy can create valuable precedents which, in turn, can reduce demand for legal assistance services and the justice system more generally.” It also identifies a number of examples where LAC and CLC advocacy work has created precedents that have reduced demand for legal assistance services and downstream pressure on the justice system.
One Legal Aid Commission (LAC), in its submission to the Productivity Commission report, noted that “Strategic advocacy is increasingly utilised by the sector as a necessary means to stretch the value of finite funds to maximise benefits to the community.”
So why does the Federal government want to restrict our capacity to engage in systemic advocacy? Why does its approach run counter to the Productivity Commission’s draft report findings?
Why, when the record often demonstrates a rich engagement by CLCs on policy issues of federal significance and often an appreciation by government of that engagement, would this not be valued?
Victorian CLCs and the former state Labor government didn’t see eye to eye on all issues at all times. But we did agree that CLCs should (in the words of former state Labor Attorney-General, Rob Hulls) “be a thorn in the side of government” (and a voice for justice in our communities).Image: by What What CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr