Legislative Council

GREENS MOTION: Legal Aid Funding

May 10th, 2017

On the 10th of May 2017 Mark continued to speak to his motion regarding funding of legal aid that he moved on 29th March 2017.

That this council—

1. Notes that  the Law Council of Australia's bie nnial National Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference was held in Adelaide on 23 and 24 March in conjunction with the Law Society of South Australia and the Australian Pro Bono Centre;

2. Notes the Productivity Commission's 2014 Access to Justice Arrangements Inquiry Report which called for a substantial increase in legal aid funding which it noted would help prevent legal problems from escalating and reduce costs to the justice system and to the community;

3. Notes that legal and consumer bodies from around Austr alia are supporting a national 'Legal Aid Matters ' campaign to stem the legal aid funding crisis; and

4. Calls on the state and federal governmen t s to urgently increase funding  to the Legal Service Commission, community legal centres and other services that help South Australians in their dealings with both the criminal and civil justice systems.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: When I introduced this motion back on 29 March, I sought leave to conclude my remarks because I was hopeful that there may be some new developments. I have put this back on the agenda today because there has been some movement in legal aid funding, which is encouraging, but there is still a lot more to do and a deal of uncertainty about what the latest federal budget means for the legal aid sector.

However, let me start with the good news and that is that the previously announced cut of $34.8 million nationally to community legal centres has been reversed in the budget. Now, that is good news. It is not a matter for hearty congratulations because the cuts should never have been considered in the first place, but I do want to recognise that the government has seen the error of its ways and reversed these cuts.

Interestingly, the media release headlines of two of the key stakeholder groups yesterday are quite similar. For example, the Law Council of Australia's media release is headed, 'Budget shows government listening to legal profession, but more work needed to end justice funding crisis.' Similarly, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services' media release is headed, 'Budget 2017-18 recognises the need to restore funding to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, but there is still a long way to go.'

Probably the most generous of the media releases from yesterday's budget came from the National Council of Community Legal Centres, whose headline is simply, 'Budget lifeline for Community Legal Centres.' What I would like to do is put on the record some of the movements that have taken place in the debate over funding for legal services and offer some observations on the way forward. I might start with the media release of the Law Council of Australia after last night's budget. They say:

Vital new funding for the federal courts, along with  the reversal of cuts to community legal centres (CLCs) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS), shows that the Government is heeding the concerns of the legal profession about Australia's justice funding.

The media release includes some quotes from Fiona McLeod, who is the President of the Law Council of Australia. She said that if the funding cuts had not been reversed, it would have been a disaster for access to justice. She is quoted as saying:

We are grateful the Government has listened to, and was moved by, the arguments and advocacy of the legal profession, including the Law Council's Legal Aid Matters campaign and the concerns voiced by the National Association of Community Legal Centres .

Yet the legal assistance sector still remains critically underfunded. The Productivity Commission has recommended an additional $200 million in legal assistance funding, noting that without legal intervention the problems of individuals often spiral out of control, creating larger financial and social costs to the community. As with the federal courts, the Law Council will continue to advocate to end the underfunding of legal aid, a crisis that is causing untold damage to the lives of many Australians.

The release also goes on to talk about some new funding initiatives which, whilst strictly outside the scope of this motion, I think are important to note. One of them is $33.4 million to establish a commonwealth redress scheme for survivors of child sexual abuse and another is $3.4 million to expand the domestic violence unit pilot.

In relation to the redress scheme, media reports are still showing that South Australia is one of the few jurisdictions that is holding out and does not want to be part of that scheme. I think we need to pay attention to the attitude that our government has taken to that, and we need to bring them into the fold. The comments of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services to the budget are similar. Basically, their release says:

The 2017-18 federal budget has acknowledged the need to reverse funding cuts that were set to impact on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services on 1 July 2017.

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS) welcomes the Federal Government's decision to overturn $16.7 million in cuts over the forward estimates to ATSILS; however, warns against Government action stopping there.

The Co-Chair of NATSILS Ms Cheryl Axelby—who, I am pretty sure, is from the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement in South Australia—is quoted in the media release as saying:

The Government's decision to reverse funding cuts to ATSILS is  one step toward  ensuring our communit ies have access to justice and  diversionary services. However, commitments to justice should not stop there. The Government must take further action aimed directly toward ensuring incarceration rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do not continue to soar as they have done over the past years.

She goes on to say that:

[Their services]  should not now, or in the coming years, be placed in a position where they are forced to turn away vulnerable clients, cut staff or withdraw from servicing remote and urban courts with no other legal assistance services available, as a consequence of insufficient and inconsistent funding.

The final commentary I want to refer to is from the National Association of Community Legal Centres. Again, as with the other services, they have welcomed the reversal in the 30 per cent cut in commonwealth funding to community legal centres that was due to take effect on 1 July. The Chief Executive Officer of NACLC, Nassim Arrage, said:

We  have worked hard over a long period of time to emphasise the vital services that CLC s  provide and the   devastating impact cuts would have had — today the  Government has recognised this. We also welcome an additional $3.4 million  for six  new domestic violence units at CLCs and Legal Aid Commissions … This  Budget addresses the immediate funding crisis for most CLCs but there is more work to do. There is more work to do in ensuring increased , secure and long-term funding for the legal assistance sector. There is more work to do with government towards a fairer society where anyone can receive legal help when they need it, not just when they can afford it.

That brings me to the situation with the South Australian community legal centres. The ones that I spoke to this morning were buoyed and encouraged by the fact that the funding cuts have been reversed and their funding looked to be more certain; however, it was pointed out to me that all of the community legal centres were obliged to effectively reapply for funding at the end of last year. I understand that tenders closed in December of 2016, yet they still do not know which of the services are going to win the tenders and, therefore, which ones are likely to operate into the future.

The difficulty of that is that what the services are telling me is that they have not replaced any staff that have left, and you can understand why, because up until today you can imagine the job interview situation where you are saying to prospective new staff, 'We can't guarantee you work beyond 1 July.' What lawyer, paralegal or administrative person is going to accept that sort of uncertainty? You are not going to leave another job or take on a new job that might only have a couple of months longevity. So, I would urge the state government, now that these funding cuts have been reversed, to very quickly determine which services are going to be kept operating so that those services can plan for their future.

I did want to put those recent developments on the table. They do not detract from the substance of this motion, which calls on both state and federal governments to increase funding to not just the community legal centres or to the Aboriginal services that I have referred to, but also to state legal aid, to the Legal Services Commission of South Australia. There is no need, in light of these changes, to modify any part of the motion. I am not calling for it to come to a vote just yet, but I will do so at an appropriate time and I would urge all members to pay close attention to these services that are being provided in our community to some of the most vulnerable people in the community and to make sure that we do not exacerbate existing problems, whether they be criminal or civil, by denying people access to legal advice and representation.

For more information see introduction of motion on 29th March 2017

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