Defending Community Legal Centres

Australia’s 189 Community Legal Centres (CLCs) shoulder a massive workload for a bargain basement price, but Federal Government funding cuts mean they are compelled to turn more and more people away.

By Senator Nick McKim
Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Comunity Legal Centres (CLCs) are often on the frontline of family violence and family law cases, providing much needed support and legal advice to people who would otherwise be on their own. 

They offer specialist services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, women, tenants, older people, young people, and people with disability around issues such as consumer and credit, welfare rights, immigration and refugee applications. 

In short, CLCs provide access to justice to many who may otherwise be denied this fundamental right. 

They provide assistance to 200,000 people every year, but a lack of resources means they are forced to turn away another 150,000.

And things are getting worse.

From next year, CLCs will have their Commonwealth funding slashed from $42 million per year to $30 million per year.

This cut is small change in the context of Australia’s $400 billion budget, but it will have an immediate and significant impact on those seeking legal help.

The National Association of Community Legal Centres has calculated that the funding cut will mean that 36,435 fewer clients per year will receive their assistance.

Those who turn to CLCs are often those in the direst need, like women seeking help with an apprehended violence order against an abusive partner.

While the government has made a small amount of money available through the Women’s Safety Package, it has not bridged the funding gap. Vulnerable women and children will still miss out.

The package also ignores many types of work that CLCs do to support people trying to escape abusive partners, such as financial management, support in arranging accommodation and access to social security.

The government, as a matter of urgency, needs to reverse the funding cuts it has made, as well as accept the Productivity Commission’s recommendations for funding the entities into the future.

The Commission recommended an additional $200 million of federal, state and territory funding be spent on legal assistance providers, including community legal centres.

Ignoring it won't make it go away

As the commission noted, while public money is hard to come by, investing in legal services actually saves the community money. 

If the money isn’t spent on legal assistance, the unresolved problems don’t just go away. The issues, and the cost burden, gets shifted to other areas of government, like health, housing and child protection. 

Unfortunately, the situation is even worse for Australia’s Environmental Defenders Offices (EDOs), who play a crucial role in standing up for some of our most precious places.

In an ideological attack in late 2013, Tony Abbott completely removed the small amount of federal funding that EDOs receive. 

The decision, which followed similar cuts by conservative governments in Queensland and NSW, came after intensive lobbying from the mining sector.

Massive mining companies were sick of having to obey the law, so they asked the Liberal-National governments to squash the community-based legal groups standing in their way.

As so often happens, they got what they asked for, and $10 million was stripped from EDOs.

And just as he has done in so many areas, Malcolm Turnbull has stayed in lockstep with the policies of Tony Abbott, and the funding for CLCs and EDOs has not been restored.

Weaker EDOs mean that bad, corrupt and environmentally damaging decisions by state and commonwealth governments could go unchallenged.

The Greens are developing election policy initiatives at the federal level that will reflect the important role CLCs play in improving access to justice for the people and places that need it most.