Legislative Council

GOVERNMENT BILL: Defunding of Community Legal Centres

May 30th, 2017

On the 30th of May, Mark spoke to the Supply Bill 2017.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: In debating the Supply Bill, I want to draw attention today to how the federal and state governments are letting down some of the most vulnerable people in our state. I am referring to the decision that was announced last Friday afternoon to close three important community legal centres, namely, the Riverland Community Legal Centre based in Berri, the South East Community Legal Service based in Mount Gambier and the Welfare Rights Centre based in Adelaide. Depending on who you talk to, these closures are either the result of federal government funding cuts or they are the result of the state government failing to properly manage its own processes and budget. Regardless of who was to blame, the ones who will suffer are clearly some of the most vulnerable people in South Australia.

Let us look at what these community legal services do. The two country services (in the Riverland and in the South-East) are what are referred to as generalist services: they provide a wide range of legal advice on a wide range of legal problems. I have some experience with both of these services. In the 10 years that I was working for the Environmental Defenders Office we would often visit the Riverland and the South-East and both of those centres would lend us an office and would put us up for the day. In my time there I saw the range of work they did and the quality of the work they did.

It is not just high-level legal problems and it is not just major cases that are going to end up in the Supreme Court. I think a lot of us forget that ordinary folk do not have a lot of interaction with the law. Most people do not really understand how the law works and they do not know what to do when they are faced with a legal problem.

One conversation I had with one of the solicitors in one of these centres was about a client who had walked in the door recently, an elderly lady whose husband had just died and she did not know what to do. What do you do legally? She did not have family or kids to support her. What do you do? Here was a shopfront where there were sympathetic people who understood the law, if there was a legal issue involved, but who could otherwise help direct the person to other places that could be of more practical assistance. If there is a legal problem, they will identify it; if there is not, they will reassure and calm the person. For people and clients like that a Skype service, an internet-based service or even a phone service just does not cut it.

The two legal services in the Riverland and the South-East also provide outreach services to the prisons that are in those areas. That is not terribly sexy work and it is not necessarily popular work. As Judge Peggy Hora, Thinker in Residence and a person I have quoted many times in this place, said about all these prisoners, 'They're coming back to us; they're coming out of prison and they're coming back to us.' They can come back to us with even more legal problems than they went into prison with or they can come back to us perhaps on a bit more of a level field and maybe with a chance to get back into society and to rehabilitate. So, they are important jobs that these country legal services provide.

Most of us know that a huge proportion of the population receives some form of social security benefit, whether it is aged pensions, unemployment benefits through Newstart, the disability pension or any of the other pensions, payments, allowances and concessions. We know that things go wrong when you have massive bureaucracies such as that administered by Centrelink. Sometimes things go wrong because of stuff-ups, sometimes it is human error, sometimes it is computer error, sometimes it is just appalling government policy that makes life overly difficult for people and discriminates against people and kicks them when they are down.

We know that mistakes happen often in the social security field. In fact, whilst I am always loathe to bring too many personal examples into this place, one of my kids once had an exchange with Centrelink over an imaginary application for a disability pension. When my child said, 'I have never applied for a disability pension. I am not eligible for one, I don't want one. I am a student.' The best they could do was say, 'We are sorry, you have been rejected for a disability pension.' You have to wonder. This stuff would do well in a Yes Minister script or even a Monty Python script.

We know things go wrong. Where do you go when things go wrong? You go to the Welfare Rights Centre. They are the experts. They know how all of these bureaucracies work. They know what people's obligations and rights are. There is more than just that, there is more than just the provision of legal advice to people who walk in or ring up. They also provide a duty solicitor service to the South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and also a duty solicitor service at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Welfare rights are there to help those who have no-one else to help them and to advocate on their behalf. They also provide an outreach service to the APY (Aboriginal) lands. They go there two or three times a year, providing legal services.

There is even more than that. Another service they provide is a Housing Legal Clinic, providing essential legal advice to those who are experiencing or are at risk of homelessness. One of the great things about this particular service is that it leverages around $600,000 worth of pro bono legal assistance from the private legal profession. These are organisations that run on a shoestring. The annual budget for the South East Community Legal Service at Mount Gambier is something like $522,000 a year; it is about half a million dollars a year to serve that entire community. It is money well spent and it pays for itself.

Following the announcement of these three centres closing, the National Association of Community Legal Centres has sheeted home responsibility to both the federal and the state government. According to the national association's media release from yesterday:

People in South Australia will miss out on essential legal services as a result of the decision of the South Australian Government to close three of the eight Commonwealth funded Community Legal Centres (CLCs) across South Australia… 

'We are extremely concerned about the decision to close three of these centres - the Welfare Rights Legal Centre, that provides expert social security law assistance; South East Community Legal Centre based in Mount Gambier and Riverland Community Legal Service in Berri.'… 

'The closure of these centres and the move to the centralisation of access to legal services will act as a barrier for people getting the help they need from local community-based services. People in places like Berri already face barriers to accessing services and now their nearest CLC will be hundreds of kilometres away.' 

When it comes to whose fault it is, I will give you two contrary opinions. The first one we will get from the Attorney-General, Mr Rau. In his media release, which I think is best described as an attempt to put lipstick on a pig, he acknowledges that the commonwealth recently announced additional funding for community legal services and he complains that the detail was only made available to the state government in recent days. Mind you, that complaint did not stop him from closing these centres. He says:

The additional Commonwealth funding does not reverse the Federal cuts to community legal services sector in South Australia. 

If we contrast that with the media statement, again from yesterday, from the peak body, the National Association of Community Legal Centres, their spokesperson says:

We are very disappointed that the South Australian  Government has made this decision despite the Commonwealth Government reversing the funding cuts facing CLCs in the recent Federal Budget. 

I think that both levels of government need to bear responsibility, but our focus here is on what the state government can do. The government says that it is not cutting these services, but that they are going to be provided in different ways. As I have said before, there is going to be an emphasis on telephone advice, they are going to use the Legal Services Commission as a central clearing house and I guess people, if they are able to, will log onto computers, but what is really unclear is whether the shopfronts will be maintained, whether the hours will be maintained and whether local solicitors and support staff based in the local community will be retained.

According to the Attorney-General, services in Adelaide's south, in the South-East of the state and in the Riverland will now be provided by Southern Community Justice Centre. I have no beef with that organisation. They do good work; I have no criticism of them whatsoever. I guess you could say that providing some service is better than providing no service, but it is still very unclear whether the quality and quantity of services that those country communities have enjoyed up until now will be able to be met in the same way under new management.

It is clear that cost cutting has gone on, and it seems pretty clear that other organisations have sniffed the wind and put in bids for much lower levels of service. It appears that that is what has happened here. Similarly, the service provided by the Welfare Rights Centre appears to have gone to Uniting Communities. Again, I have no criticism of that organisation; they do fine work. They have entered a field that was much lacking in South Australia, that of consumer credit, so I take my hat off to them, but if this is just about cost cutting, shutting shopfronts and closing a specialist service that has served the South Australian community for decades, then it is just not good enough.

The next step, of course, is what can be done. I will refer to the media release put out by the National Association of Community Legal Centres. They have made the following call to the South Australian government. I think they are on the money, and I echo these calls. They call on the South Australian government to do its part in ensuring that the people of South Australia can access the legal help they need by - there are four dot points - firstly, increasing its contribution to community legal centre funding. The three centres had never received state funding; they were commonwealth funded. The state government always avoided sending money their way - they said, 'No, you can rely on the feds' - and now they are not prepared to step in and save those essential services.

Secondly, they call on the South Australian government to make a decision on the allocation of the additional commonwealth funding that was provided in the 2017-18 federal budget as soon as possible. We know that much of that money has been earmarked for domestic violence services. I think it is probably fair to say that that is exactly a lot of the work that these community legal centres do - it is in that field - so there is no incompatibility there.

Thirdly, they call on the state government to revisit its decision to de-fund these three centres. Finally - and I guess this is the fallback position at the end of the day - if the government is committed to closing these centres, they call on the state government to provide transitional funding and support for the people, communities and centres affected. I think that final point is an important one.

Having spent a fair bit of my life working in and with community legal centres, I know that there is a lot of sacrifice. We have lawyers, paralegals and administrative people who work for far less pay than they would get in the private sector or even in the Public Service. People work in these areas because they appreciate the need that they are serving. Sure, they get satisfaction out of it, but they work very hard. As I said before, it also leverages a lot of pro bono assistance. These community legal centres are great training for young lawyers. It exposes young lawyers to issues and to people that they might not otherwise be aware of.

I can say, as a fact, that my early work at the Fitzroy Legal Service exposed me to a side of life that I had not imagined. It was a long way from the middle-class suburbs, where I guess most of us grew up, to the streets of Fitzroy in the 1970s - a very different world. We know that community legal centre lawyers work in a tough environment. It can be frustrating but it can also be rewarding. I think the government owes it to these people, who have served the South Australian community for so many decades, to not leave them in the lurch, to provide them with funding and to provide them with some certainty so we can ensure that the important work that they do will continue.

printer friendly version

Get email updates