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Issue #1677      March 18, 2015

Legal services face funding cuts threat

If the federal government refuses to reinstate funding, Aboriginal legal services will be forced to wind back dramatically, including closing the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS).

Calls to reinstate funds to Aboriginal legal services have come from all seven state and territory attorneys-general, the Australian Bar Association, the Australian Council of Social Services, the federal opposition and the Greens.

NATSILS chief executive Eddie Cubillo told the Koori Mail that without more funds the peak body would have to shut in June.

“There have been numerous independent reports – including from the Productivity Commission and the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report – that highlight the desperate need for more money in the sector, but they’ve been ignored,” he said.

The Abbott government has cut more than $13 million from the Aboriginal legal sector. NATSILS unsuccessfully applied for funding under the government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy.

“We’ve had to cease policy reform work and, while the government claims the cuts wouldn’t affect frontline services, they have,” Mr Cubillo said.

The Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) NSW/ACT has launched a petition calling on the Prime Minister to reverse the funding cuts of nearly 20 percent.

ALS NSW/ACT chief executive Phil Naden said the cuts will have damaging effects on Aboriginal families, particularly children.

“Everything we do at the ALS is frontline, so a 20% cut to our annual budget is a 20% cut to our frontline services,” he said. “We’re a not-for-profit organisation running on a shoestring budget and, compared to other legal services, we are underfunded.”

Mr Naden said cuts to services will have “terrible ramifications” for Aboriginal children, parents and carers. “Every day in Australia some 40 Aboriginal children are removed from their families, and now there’s over 15,000 Aboriginal children sitting in out-of-home care,” he said.

“Life after removal is not always a happy ending. Evidence shows a large cohort of those kids who were removed end up in the juvenile justice system, and then adult jail.

“Not only are we experiencing rates of child removal faster than at any time during the Stolen Generation, we’re also determining a path for so many of these kids which is straight into the criminal justice system.

“ALS frontline services are there for those kids. We operate a care and protection practice that fights to keep children and families together.

“We run a family law practice that works with families and the best interests of the child. We run a criminal law practice that helps divert young people from the juvenile justice system and adults from entering prison. If the ALS is cut, more kids will be taken away and more of those kids will end up in detention and then prison.”

All seven state and territory attorneys-general have reportedly written to their federal counterpart George Brandis about the government’s cuts. Their letter is said to call on Senator Brandis to guarantee no further funding reductions would be made to the Legal Aid Commission, community legal centres, and the Aboriginal Legal Service.

The Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Secretary, Alan Tudge, told Sky News the government had an “absolute commitment” to providing funding for frontline legal aid services for vulnerable people. He said the government was reconfiguring how legal services organisations were funded.

“Instead of the Commonwealth funding them directly, we will fund them via the state governments,” Mr Tudge said.

Greens spokesperson for legal affairs Penny Wright said NATSILS advocacy was crucial to addressing shocking levels of Indigenous incarceration.

“More than one in four prisoners are Aboriginal, despite making up only a fraction of our population,” she said. “Too many are in jail because of inadequate legal understanding and representation.

“These cuts demonstrate an appalling lack of concern about shameful over-incarceration of Aboriginal people. Without the national coordination, advocacy and frontline assistance NATSILS provides, I believe we will see imprisonment rates rise even further.”

Mr Cubillo said he would like to see politicians take heed of the independent reports into Aboriginal legal services and come and speak to the people working in the sector.

Koori Mail

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