Fund Equal Justice: Challenges Facing Community Legal Centres

01 March 2017 | Amanda Alford, Director Policy & Advocacy, National Association of Community Legal Centres

Access to justice for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our community is under threat.

There are four publicly funded legal assistance providers in Australia- Community Legal Centres (CLCs), Family Violence Prevention Legal Centres (FVPLS), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Centres (ATSILS) and Legal Aid Commissions (LACs). Each plays a crucial role in ensuring people receive the legal help they desperately need.

Community Legal Centres, of which there are almost 200 across Australia, play a vital role in prevention and early intervention through the provision of information and advice, delivery of community legal education and law reform and policy work.

Unfortunately however, the ability of these services to continue providing vital assistance to clients across Australia is being increasingly limited by resource constraints, despite rising demand. For example, on 1 July this year Community Legal Centres face a 30% reduction in Commonwealth funding, amounting to around $35 million over the forward estimates. ATSILS are facing cuts of $18 million and the FVPLS and LACs remain significantly underfunded.

The adverse consequences of Federal Government funding decisions such as this on people and communities across Australia, as well as courts and the justice and related systems cannot be underestimated.

The 2014 Productivity Commission Access to Justice Arrangements Inquiry Report was clear- investing in legal assistance services saves the Government and community significant downstream costs. Without such an investment we are likely to see the escalation of legal problems, higher rates of self-representation before courts and flow on effects for other services. In a sector that already turns away over 160,000 people each year it will deny justice many more people each year.

The upcoming Federal Budget in May provides the last formal opportunity for the Federal Government to reverse the funding cliff before it takes effect in July. It is the last formal opportunity to demonstrate support for the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable and disadvantaged people across Australia who need the help of CLCs every year and to ensure their ongoing access to justice.

The time is now to fund equal justice.

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