A state fix isn't enough to save community legal centres | Law

A state fix isn't enough to save community legal centres

OPINION: Professor George Williams AO, the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 2017.

When people think of a lawyer, they often have an image of someone who represents the rich and powerful. However, Australia has an army of lawyers who work on low wages to protect the disadvantaged and vulnerable. Many work for one of Australia's 190 non-profit community legal centres, which federal Attorney-General George Brandis announced will receive a 30 per cent funding cut from July 1 this year.

One of these centres, the Kingsford Legal Centre (KLC), is based at the University of NSW. People come to the centre or one of its outreach clinics because they cannot afford a private lawyer or access legal aid. They need help with the law, but this is usually just one of many problems, such as mental illness, addiction, domestic violence or poverty.

For example, KLC represented two single parents who moved from welfare to work at a cleaning company. Three months in, they queried their rate of pay and asked why they were not allowed to take breaks. They were immediately dismissed, and faced a future back on welfare. They came to KLC, which stood up for their workplace rights. The women were compensated and received letters of reference to help them gain new employment. 

Another client was an older Aboriginal woman living in public housing. She received the disability support pension because of mental illness and physical conditions, and had difficulty reading. She signed a lengthy contract with a telecommunications company after being told that she could afford this on her pension. Instead, she was sent a new smartphone and tablet and a monthly bill well beyond her means. When she could not pay, she was hit with a charge of more than $3000. KLC represented the woman, and the provider agreed to waive the entire amount she owed.

A final example involves a client struggling with a massive debt. He defaulted on his mortgage after an accident left him with a brain injury. The bank repossessed his property and sold it below market value so that he was left owing hundreds of thousands of dollars. The legal centre spent a year negotiating on his behalf, and the bank wiped the entire debt.

Community legal centres across Australia help more than 215,000 people like this each year. Their work is life changing. They prevent legal problems cascading into something much more serious, such as debt into homelessness and unfair dismissal into a family in poverty. The economic returns of doing this are enormous. It can stop a person being dependent on the public purse by way of welfare or health costs, or even due to imprisonment.

The benefits of community legal centres have been recognised by the Productivity Commission, which recommended in 2014 that government invest a further $200 million a year into the legal assistance sector. This would prevent community legal centres having to turn away 160,000 people each year due to a lack of funding. And early intervention in people's problem saves the government money in the long term.

The response of  Brandis has been perplexing. Rather than increasing funding, or even maintaining the status quo, the federal government has said it will reduce funding to community legal centres by 30 per cent, or $12.1 million a year.

The funding cut for community legal centres is tiny as a proportion of the federal budget, but is devastating for a sector that operates on a shoestring. If the cuts went through in NSW, the Illawarra Legal Centre would need to turn away 500 clients each year looking for legal help in accessing welfare and child support, while the Central Coast CLC would close its Wyong Mental Health Unit. Services would need to be discontinued entirely in places such as the Tweed, Bathurst and Lithgow.

Brandis' announcement has provoked an outcry from all quarters. State and territory attorneys-general of all political persuasions have united in saying that the cuts will compromise efforts to combat domestic violence and Indigenous disadvantage. They have been joined by law schools, the legal profession, churches and domestic violence organisations.

The federal government has shown no willingness to reverse the cuts. Instead, in NSW, the state government has come to the rescue with Attorney-General Mark Speakman announcing $6 million in support over the next two years. This offsets the federal cuts in NSW over that period and shows that the state government, unlike its federal coalition counterpart, understands and supports the need for these legal centres.

The intervention by NSW is welcome, but is not a sustainable, long-term solution. It does not help community legal centres in other states, and no promises have been made beyond the next two years. Ultimately, this problem can only be fixed by having a federal government willing to recognise the value of providing legal assistance to the most disadvantaged in the community.

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