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Funding crisis sees Aboriginal Legal Service freeze operations at 13 New South Wales courts

Giovanni Torre -

Aboriginal Legal Service operations in 13 local courts in regional New South Wales have been frozen from Monday after a call for emergency federal funding to maintain the services was not answered.

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), the peak body for Aboriginal legal services across the country, had requested a $250 million federal support package ahead of the federal budget this month just to maintain current levels of service nationwide.

ALS NSW/ACT chief executive Karly Warner said the services face "an unprecedented crisis caused by the systemic undervaluing of the services we provide".

The ALS will withdraw indefinitely from courts in Byron Bay, Eden, Forster, Junee, Lithgow, Moss Vale, Muswellbrook, Scone, Singleton, Temora, Tenterfield, West Wyalong and Wauchope.

Some Queensland services operated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (ATSILS) Queensland have been suspended since April.

Ms Warner told ABC news that across the country, Aboriginal legal services are "being forced into difficult decisions as to where we can stem the bleeding of this workload crisis for our team members, while also minimising the pain for our clients and communities".

Funding for the services has not matched the 100 per cent increase in demand since 2018

A recent ALS online forum heard from staff struggling with the case loads and limited resources.

Ms Warner said: "We have to make sure we are prioritising the wellbeing of our team members, while also balancing high quality, culturally safe support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people all around the country who need and deserve access."

ALS NSW/ACT relies on split funding between the New South Wales and federal government, but the lion's share comes from the Commonwealth.

Ms Warner warned of "dire consequences" for some clients who will be compelled to rely on legal assistance that lacks cultural safety or even go without representation, which could lead to higher incarceration rates.

Last year's federal budget included $13.5 million to legal services across Australia, and $1 million to NATSILS, in total less than six per cent of what has been requested to maintain services nationwide.

Ms Warner told ABC news: "It seems that access to justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is not a priority for the government in the federal budget."

While the inflation rate sits at seven per cent, Ms Warner noted that the increase in core funding from this financial year to the next, paid through the National Legal Assistance Partnership, will be just over two per cent.

A spokesperson for federal Attorney General Mark Dreyfus told National Indigenous Times that the government recognises the "critical role Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) play in ensuring First Nations people have access to culturally appropriate and safe services and programs".

"The government is committed to working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People to achieve better justice outcomes," he said.

"The first Albanese Budget included $99 million to fund a historic First Nations Justice Package. This includes $13.5 million in additional funding to ATSILS to increase their capacity to provide culturally appropriate legal assistance in coronial inquiries and $1 million to build greater capacity in the peak body, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.

"The current National Legal Assistance Partnership ends on 30 June 2025, and an independent review of the agreement is commencing this year. The review is an opportunity to examine the adequacy of funding and ensure the legal assistance sector is best equipped to deal with current and future challenges."

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