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Issue #1623      January 22, 2014

Cutbacks threat to legal services

Aboriginal legal services across the country have warned they will be forced to reduce frontline services as a result of planned federal government cutbacks. Critics say the government’s move to slash funding by $43.1 million to the legal assistance sector will lead to an increase in imprisonment rates, especially for Indigenous people.

The Law Council of Australia has attacked the reductions, saying instead of cutting funding, the government should be increasing legal assistance and justice reinvestment programs.

“These cuts will ultimately create a net burden for the economy and work counter to the government’s objectives,” Law Council president Michael Colbran said. Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia CEO Dennis Eggington told the Koori Mail newspaper that the funding cuts would particularly affect education and policy development.

“When the cuts come in we will lose our ability to influence government around new legislation and policies,” he said. “Here in WA we have legislation and policies that are directly and indirectly discriminating against Aboriginal people, which means more of our people get caught up in the legal system.

“In many cases the ultimate punishment is jail so we won’t have the ability to respond in a proactive and informed way to government.”

Mr Eggington said the funding cuts would also limit the service’s ability to run education programs in communities and schools.

“Lastly, we will also lose frontline services,” he said. “There is no doubt the levels of cuts will have to come from frontline services including family, civil or criminal law.”

Meanwhile, the National Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention Legal Service has already been told it will have to deal with $3.6 million in cuts over the next three years. National convenor Antoinette Braybrook said Aboriginal women were 34 times more likely to be hospitalised due to family-violence-related assault than other Australian women.

“Playing politics”

“We know from the statistics that rates of family violence are increasing, but instead of addressing this national crisis, governments are cutting our funding and restricting our services,” she said. “They are playing politics with the safety of our women and children.

“The government claims that funding will be taken from policy and law reform programs, and frontline services will not be impacted. Clearly our government doesn’t understand how FVPLS services operate. There is simply no such funding provided for individual services to engage in policy and law reform.

“Services will have no choice but to cut back frontline service delivery given that this is where services direct their funding.”

Australian Democrats South Australian district president Jeanie Walker said the funding cuts were “a crushing blow”. She called on South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill to contact the federal government and demand that the funding be reinstated.

Western Australian state Labor frontbencher Ben Wyatt has taken Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s key Indigenous advisor, Warren Mundine, to task over comments he made about the cuts.

In a comment piece in The Australian newspaper, Mr Mundine had argued it was unrealistic to expect that Indigenous affairs spending would be immune to budget cuts.

Mr Mundine had argued that removing inefficiency, duplication, bureaucracy and red tape would lead to lower spending. He said it was unrealistic to expect that he, and the Indigenous Advisory Council that he leads, could “cast a force field” over Indigenous spending to exempt it from the broader budget agenda.

Mr Wyatt agreed, but said he expected Mr Mundine to remind the government of the real consequences of its decisions. “I worry that he sees his role more as a defender of the government than an advocate for Aboriginal Australians,” he wrote.

He said cutting funding from legal aid risked the obvious – that more Aboriginal people would end up in prison. “Mr Mundine was correct to identify the responsibility of state governments to increase diversionary options, but it was his responsibility to ensure the Abbott government bore financial and moral responsibility for the consequences of its decisions,” Mr Wyatt said.

Koori Mail

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