Indigenous Australians hit hard by legal aid cuts

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, has confirmed the government will stick to its election pledge to cut 43-point-one million dollars from legal aid services, including those accessed by many Indigenous Australians.


Darren Mara has the details.

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The legal aid cuts will be spread across four main areas: legal aid commissions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, community legal services and the Family Violence Prevention Legal Services.

Indigenous legal aid will have $13.4 million stripped from its budget.

Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey says it’s part of returning the national budget to good health.

Among the organisations hardest hit will be the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Legal Services, or NATSILS.

Its chairman, Shane Duffy, says his group still hasn’t had any direct explanation of why the slashes to funding were necessary.

He says it’s a false economy, and will lead to an increase in child protection removal rates and nationwide job losses in Indigenous legal services.

“So really what it does do is remove – using the government catch-cry of ‘Access to Justice’ – it takes away the access to justice for the roles that those positions at a national, state and territory level undertook, and that was providing community legal education and informing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of their legal rights in the criminal, civil and family law areas. But also, it takes away the capacity of our organisations at a state, territory and national level.”

Mr Duffy says the cuts will effectively force NATSILS to disband.

He also predicts a rise in Indigenous incarceration rates as a result.

Michael Smith is the national convenor of the National Association of Community Legal Services.

He says Indigenous Australians in need of legal help will be worse off under the cuts.

“We work with people all the time that without the right kind of legal help they get really bad legal outcomes. The Aboriginal legal services, in particular, do an excellent job helping people avoid jail and also help people with their legal rights across a whole range of issues in remote Australia and in the cities as well too. It’s really hard to see how you can make a significant effort to lower incarceration rates while you’re cutting those services.”

The federal government says the cuts will only apply to the policy reform and advocacy arms of legal aid.

But during Senate Estimates hearings, the Attorney General’s Department confirmed there was no way they would know just how it would affect frontline services.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion has told NITV the federal government is trying to minimise the impact of the cuts.

“Yes that is still a lot of money. Yes that is still cuts. And we don’t believe that’s now going to impact on frontline services. But we’re going to continue to engage with legal services as we have been for the last few months to ensure that’s the case.”

Michael Smith, from Community Legal Centres, says the cuts will have to affect frontline services.

“Before the election the Coalition talked about a cut of that size to Indigenous legal services only but what they’re clearly doing now is they’re spreading those cuts across all four legal assistance providers. So rather than just going to the Aboriginal legal services, it’s also going to community legal centres. We’re looking at a $19 million cut over four years. It’s going to the Family Violence Legal Prevention Service, which works with Aboriginal woman in particular and a smaller amount to the legal aid commissions. So they’re spreading the cuts across all four legal assistance services and in all those cases we can’t see how you can’t make those cuts without frontline services being affected.”

The federal opposition says now is not the time to be cutting legal aid funding to vulnerable communities.

Opposition Spokesman for Indigenous Affairs Shayne Neumann says the sector needs a funding boost, particularly in the areas of school attendance, youth mentoring and employment programs.

He’s called the government’s funding cuts “retrograde and conservative”, and says similar sorts of cuts in Queensland carried dire consequences for Indigenous groups.

“What the conservative LNP government under Campbell Newman has done is cut funding in terms of prisoner assistance, it cut funding in terms of assistance to families where people are in prison, it cut funding to the drug courts and the Murri courts. What we’ve seen is a massive spike in incarceration rates, and not just for Indigenous people but across the country (the state).”