What You Need to Know about the Funding Cuts to Community Legal Centres

 

Community legal centres (CLCs) are not-for-profit community organisations that provide free legal services. They are facing funding cuts from the federal government. Here’s what you need to know.

 

First, the funding cuts are massive. CLCs are going to lose about 30% of their federal government funding in 2017–18. [1]

Second, the funding cuts are going to have devastating effects. Some CLCs will have to close, whilst other CLCs will have to abandon key projects. Wait times will increase and large geographical areas will be left without essential legal services. An estimated 36 435 people will lose access to legal help in critical areas such as domestic violence, housing, employment, discrimination and immigration. The effects will be felt by vulnerable clients, their families, CLC volunteers and staff, other legal and non-legal service providers and the Australian courts. [2]

Two state governments have acted to buy CLCs in their states some time:

·         the NSW government has committed to covering the federal funding shortfall until the end of 2018–19; and

·         the Tasmanian government has committed to covering the federal funding shortfall in 2017–18.

Although these commitments give hope, they do not resolve the crisis. CLCs in the other six states and territories will be affected immediately. Even in NSW and Tasmania, CLCs have only been bought an extra two years and one year respectively.

Third, CLCs are already desperately underfunded. This is illustrated by the fact that CLCs turn away more than 160 000 people each year. [3] The Productivity Commission recommended that Australian governments immediately provide an additional $200 million per year to the legal assistance sector. In doing so, the Productivity Commission noted that the underfunding of the legal assistance sector is not even economically efficient. Without early intervention, people’s problems balloon, producing greater costs in other areas of government spending. [4]

Fourth, the funding cuts are opposed by all major stakeholders. These include:

·         the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders;

·         all state and territory law societies, representing more than 60 000 solicitors;

·         all state and territory governments, including both Coalition and Labor governments;

·         the deans of Australian law schools;

·         the pro bono practices of leading corporate law firms;

·         the Uniting Church;

·         the Australian Senate, in which Labor, the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team, Jacquie Lambie and Derryn Hinch oppose the cuts.  

Fifth, the funding cuts can be defeated. The federal government has previously backed down on funding cuts when they have proved too unpopular. This makes it our job to prove how unpopular the funding cuts are and how devastating the impact will be.

Here’s what you can do to help the campaign against the CLC funding cuts (I have found these tasks to be an excellent distraction during some of my more boring classes):

·         Like the following Facebook pages to show your support and to keep up to date on CLC news: the National Association of Community Legal Centres, Community Legal Centres NSW and the Kingsford Legal Centre;

·         Follow @NACLCComms, @CommunityLawAus and @clcnsw on Twitter;

·         Sign the online petition against the funding cuts and Rosie Batty’s letter; and

·         Send a brief message to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, to Attorney-General George Brandis (senator.brandis@aph.gov.au) and to your local MP. A few sentences are enough to get the point across.

The CLC funding cuts are a serious threat to human rights in Australia. Let’s do what we can to stop them.

 

The author, Sean Bowes, was the Human Rights Defender Student Editor for the summer semester 2016/17. He is in his final semester of a combined Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws at the University of New South Wales.

The author thanks Amanda Alford, the Director (Policy and Advocacy) at the National Association of Community Legal Centres, for her assistance with this post. Any mistakes are the author’s own.

 

[1] National Association of Community Legal Centres, Submission to Australian Government regarding the Federal Budget 2017–18, 20 January 2017, 1 <http://www.naclc.org.au/resources/NACLC%20Federal%20Budget%20Submission%202017-18%20Final.pdf>. 

[2] Ibid 8; Community Legal Centres NSW, February 2017, Submission to the NSW Government regarding the NSW Budget 2017–18, 18–9 <http://www.clcnsw.org.au/public_resource_details.php?resource_id=667>.

[3] National Association of Community Legal Centres, above n 1.

[4] Australian Government, Productivity Commission, Access to Justice Arrangements Inquiry Report (2014) vol 1, 30 –1 <http://www.pc.gov.au/inquiries/completed/access-justice/report/access-justice-volume1.pdf>.