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Peak Aboriginal legal body condemns federal budget flop

Dechlan Brennan -

Indigenous legal services across Australia will have to operate on a shoestring budget after failing to receive "meaningful relief" in the federal budget, the national peak Indigenous legal organisation says.

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) - the peak body representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) in each jurisdiction - had called for a combined $229 in funding from the federal budget to "ensure they can continue to deliver their critical services."

The federal government's commitment of $44.1 million to Community Legal Services will see $15.4m going to ATSILS.

NATSILS deputy chair Nerita Waight they were "angry and distressed" the funding crisis would continue unabated for another year.

"This crisis is caused by decades of underfunding by successive parliaments, coupled with skyrocketing demand for our services," Ms Waight said.

She said some ATSILS' across the country had already frozen or reduced services and the "disappointing Budget" meant they were on the precipice of further reductions.

"Further service freezes would have dire consequences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people," Ms Waight said.

"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."

She said that without more funding, further services would be reduced across the legal assistance sector.

"We'll see a greater number of workers leave the sector for more appropriate remuneration and recognition, and these issues will further compound the investment required to meet growing unmet legal need," Ms Waight said.

ATSILS' are primarily funded under the 2020-2025 National Legal Assistance Partnership (NLAP), which recently was the subject of an independent review by Dr Warren Mundy.

ATSILS said the review was delivered to all the Attorney General's in March, but they had not seen a copy. They called for it to be made public by Federal Attorney General Mark Dreyfus.

"Though ATSILS are yet to be provided with a copy of the review two months after its delivery to government, we understand that it recommends a significant increase to our baseline funding from mid-2025, when the NLAP agreement is due to be renewed," Ms Waight said, who described the lack of transparency as "abhorrent".

Ms Waight, who is also the chief executive of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS), noted VALS would receive less than seven per cent of national ATSILS funding, which would have "little meaningful impact."

VALS said the "national crisis" against women required investment in specialist responses — including Aboriginal-led solutions.

"Aboriginal women and children deserve to be safe, and our services are a critical part of a holistic, Aboriginal-led response to the ongoing crisis of family violence," Ms Waight said.

Yet the Albanese government has decided to ignore the invaluable work of ACCOs and Aboriginal Legal Services such as VALS in providing Aboriginal-led solutions."

VALS said Indigenous women were "45 times more likely to experience family violence than non-Indigenous women and at least 25 times more likely to be killed or injured by a former or intimate partner".

"Family violence is not an 'Aboriginal' problem, the majority of clients that services such as Djirra supports are partnered with non-Indigenous men," they said in a statement.

VALS said Indigenous services must be funded to provide programs the community wants and needs, with the budget announcement only a "drop in the ocean" to what ATSILS' across the country need.

"If we cannot adequately provide trauma-informed and holistic preventative support and interventions, alongside providing legal services and representation to those in need, we cannot address the underlying causes of family violence," Ms Waight said.

"In a sector where vicarious trauma is high and our workers are vulnerable to burnout, we need stability and security to ensure that we can continue supporting our people to the best of our ability."

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