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Aboriginal legal services in crisis as demand doubles

Kat Wong -

First Nations Australians are at risk of increased family violence and unjust incarceration as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal organisations struggle with surging demand.

Legal services for the disproportionate number of incarcerated First Nations youth and adults, along with more support for housing are the main focus in submissions ahead of the federal budget which is due to be handed down on Tuesday.

Demand for Aboriginal legal services has doubled since 2018, putting their workforces under pressure and fuelling significant recruitment and retention challenges, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSIL) wrote in its pre-federal budget submission.

This has pushed many organisations to the precipice, forcing them to freeze services and putting First Nations people at risk, NATSIL chair Karly Warner said.

"This crisis is caused by decades of underfunding by successive parliaments, coupled with skyrocketing demand for our services," she told AAP.

"When culturally safe, accessible legal help isn't available, the result is more children taken from their families, more family violence, more unjust imprisonment and the very real possibility of more deaths in custody."

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are about 3.8 per cent of the Australian population but are vastly over-represented in the justice system.

They make up 33 per cent of all prisoners according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics and more than half of those in youth detention, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has found.

Between June 2022 and 2023, the number of First Nations prisoners increased by seven per cent.

NATSIL has suggested the government spend $229 million over two years for a fund that will deliver external support to recruit new staff, reverse current service freezes and ensure salary parity, as a needs-based funding model is developed.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have also been hit hard by the housing crisis and experience homelessness rate almost ten times higher than the broader community.

This has prompted the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Housing Association to request more housing in the federal budget.

"The current strategy of direct funding for remote Indigenous housing is proving non-competitive and inadequate, risking a widening gap in housing conditions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations," the housing association's pre-budget submission said.

"Amidst a national housing crisis, the insufficient allocation of resources for First Nations housing poses a direct threat to the success of the Closing the Gap agreement."

A review released by the Productivity Commission in February called for a radical change in approach by all governments as they had largely failed to fulfil their commitments to the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

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Kat Wong - AAP

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