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Legal groups warn services helping the most disadvantaged may be cut if funding isn't increased

Dechlan Brennan -

Indigenous legal services are struggling to keep their head above water and will likely have to pull back funding for vital services if funding is not increased, after not being given the funding the sector requires in the latest federal budget. 

On Tuesday, the federal budget provided $44.1 million in funding over the 2024-25 financial year for Community Legal Services, with $15.4m going to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS). 

In a statement, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), the peak body representing ATSILS, argued the funding allocation treated First Nations justice as an “afterthought,” with NATSILS' deputy chair Nerita Waight saying the body was “angry and distressed” the funding “crisis” would continue for at least another year. 

“Some ATSILS have had to reduce or freeze services already,” Ms Waight said.

“After this disappointing Budget they are at the precipice of being forced [to] take further action.”

She said ATSILS had called for a $229 million budget injection to ensure they would be able to deliver their “critical services".

Law Council President, Greg McIntyre SC, said the funding in the budget was “undoubtedly needed,” but far short of what was required to meet the growing demand of the sector.

“We must not wait until next year’s Budget to adequately resource the legal assistance sector to do its vital work,” he said. 

Mr McIntyre said while he was aware of the demands on the public purse during a time when people were struggling to keep afloat, keeping people’s heads above water is what legal groups help do for the most disadvantaged. 

“They must be properly funded in order to continue their vital work,” Mr McIntyre said.

“Our legal assistance services are designed to be there for people experiencing disadvantage or crisis and to help them get back on their feet. “

He said these legal organisations can make the difference for people, but “to this nation’s shame”, are severely under-resourced.

“As a result, they are unable to meet demand and are turning clients away,” Mr McIntyre said. 

In a statement, Aboriginal Family Legal Services said they were pleased that the Federal Government - with an input of $8.6million - finally recognised the need for pay parity in the Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services sector in the 24-25 Budget.

"But this is only the start of what our sector needs to ensure the sustainability of culturally safe and trauma informed integrated legal and social services for Aboriginal victims of family and domestic violence," the statement read.

ATSILS, along with Legal Aid Commissions, Community Legal Centres, and Family Violence Prevention Legal Services across Australia, are primarily funded under the 2020-2025 National Legal Assistance Partnership (NLAP).

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Mr McIntyre said some legal services would have to look at whether they would have to wind back services in the new financial year with the finances offered in the budget. 

“In that sense, it’s disappointing,” Mr McIntyre said. “We hope the Commonwealth will tell us in the near future what they’re going to do in relation to NLAP, which needs to be resolved by the end of this financial year.” 

An independent review of the NLAP was completed in March by Dr Warren Mundy and delivered to Commonwealth and State Attorneys-General. 

Mr McIntyre said the Law Council has consistently called on the Commonwealth to restore its share of funding under NLAP, estimating it required an annual boost in funding of $500 million.

Ms Waight said ATSILS had yet to be provided a copy of the review, and said she understood it “recommends a significant increase to our baseline funding from mid-2025” when the funding is due to expire. 

She urged the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus to release the review in the interests of “transparency”. 

“Without additional investment, we are going to see services reduced and cut across the legal assistance sector,” Ms Waight observed, arguing a number of workers would leave the sector for more “appropriate remuneration and recognition”. 

“These issues will further compound the investment required to meet growing unmet legal need," she said.

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