On the 4th of April the Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, and the Member for Bendigo, Lisa Chesters, threw their support behind our EO, Hayley Mansfield, and Legal Practice Manager, Clare Sauro, who are calling on the federal government to reverse planned funding cuts to community legal centres. Their call comes as the federal government prepares the 2017 budget, due to come down on the 9th of May.
Who do community legal centres help?
Every year we help women and children to escape family violence. We help them navigate an intimidating legal system. We help families deal with the child protection bureaucracy. We battle big business on behalf of vulnerable and disadvantaged consumers. We prevent people from drowning in debt, from losing their car, their job, their house or their family. And we empower clients. We give them a voice and connect them with community supports.
Last year we helped 2,347 clients. That is 2,347 people who had nowhere else to turn to for legal advice and support at a time of crisis in their life.
Six percent of our clients identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Thirty percent of our clients had a disability. Eighty percent had a low or very low income. And family violence was present in more than 67% of the matters we dealt with. We are here for the battlers. And we are continually inspired by their courage and strength in the face of adversity.
Every Australian deserves a fair go. It should not matter where they live or how wealthy they are. Everybody deserves equal justice.
Community legal centres are a vital option for vulnerable Australians in crisis. But many still miss out.
Is everybody getting the help they need?
In 2014-15 community legal centres turned away more than 160,000 Australians. They couldn’t afford to help them. They didn’t have enough money to pay for the lawyers needed to meet the need.
Those people turned away by community legal centres did not go elsewhere for help. There was nowhere else to go. They struggled to represent themselves in court. They returned to a dangerous family home. They ended up on the streets or worse.
You might imagine the federal government would increase funding to address the need.
Indeed, in 2014 the Productivity Commission recommended a funding boost for community legal centres. An extra $14.4 million per year. This would help address the unmet need. And it would reduce the demand on other services downstream.
The Commission said community legal centres ‘prevent or reduce the escalation of legal problems, which in turn can mean reduced costs to the justice system and lower costs to other taxpayer funded services (in areas such as health, housing and social security payments).’
David Hillard, Pro Bono Partner at law firm Clayton Utz, expressed similar concerns in the Financial Review. ‘Reduced community legal centre funding is a false economy – the costs of unresolved legal problems will shift to other areas of government spending such as health care, housing and child protection.’
What is the federal government proposing?
But from 1 July this year the federal government is cutting community legal centre funds. Over the next three years they will cut funds by $34.83 million. This represents a 30% cut in 2017/18, a 27% cut in 2018/19 and a 26% cut in 2019/20.
These cuts will have a huge impact on vulnerable Australians. Including many vulnerable Central Victorians.
What will this mean for our services?
ARC Justice, which manages Loddon Campaspe and Goulburn Valley CLCs, will lose $121,000.
We will have to cut back on our advice and casework services. And women and children fleeing family violence will suffer most.
When a woman calls us about obtaining an Intervention Order we call this an advice. Our lawyers will explain her legal options and prepare her to handle the matter herself. Most advices take around 40 minutes. In 2015/16, across our two services, we provided advice to 1204 people.
If our lawyers helped her at Bendigo or Shepparton Courts to get an Intervention Order we would call this a case. Our lawyer would also undertake the necessary legal follow up on her behalf. And they wouldn’t treat only the legal problem. They would connect her with relevant community supports. This would ensure she achieves long-term safety. Most cases take around 1-5 hours. In 2015/16, across our two services, we handled 1422 cases.
But from 1 July onwards, across the two services, we will provide approximately 120 fewer advices per year. And we will handle approximately 240 fewer cases per year. That represents 10% less advices and 17% less cases.
These are real people, more than 250 people we will have to turn away when they need us most.
Why are we campaigning?
We resent having to campaign for funding. Every day we deal with people in crisis, people who come to us for legal advice and help. People who have nowhere else to turn. It pains us to have to turn our attention away from them to argue the case for funding.
Yet, we must focus on the looming May budget. The cuts to our bottom line will increase the pain for some of the neediest in our community. And it will increase demand on other services downstream.
What do we want?
- Reverse the funding cuts
- Immediately inject funding in line with the Productivity Commission’s recommendations
- Develop a sustainable model for future funding
How can you help?
We need all the support we can get. If you can spare a few minutes, you can help by:
Tell your elected representatives what you think
Contacting our local federal members, Lisa Chesters and Senator Bridget McKenzie, to express your support:
Let your fingers do the talking
Sign the online petition at Fair Agenda calling on the government to ‘reverse your devastating funding cuts to Community Legal Centres, and commit to fully funding them instead, so that no more women in Australia are left unable to escape from family violence.
Add your name to Rosie Batty’s online letter to Malcolm Turnbull calling on him to reverse the proposed cuts and to protect ‘the essential work of Community Legal Centres across Australia’.
Follow the conversation
If you’re on social media, follow the hashtag #FundEqualJustice for updates etc. We’ll be posting and tweeting over coming weeks using this hashtag. Please comment, share, retweet and help spread the word among your networks.