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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services continue campaign for critical funding

Jarred Cross -

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services across the country have continued their campaign for vital funding in the face of growing demand and strained resources, threatening to leave vulnerable people stranded.

In May, peak body National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services labelled the government's $21 million injection of funding a "band aid measure", almost $230 million short of what was requested.

NATSILS chair, ALS NSW/ACT chief executive Karly Warner, said the funding was a "good start and will help us keep the lights on over the next 12 months, but it's simply not enough".

"This increase in funding will mean different things for different services around the country. It's a welcome breather but ultimately is nowhere near enough to reverse the increasing freezes that are crippling our capacity to achieve justice for our clients," she said.

"We will continue to work with government and other stakeholders to minimise the impact on communities. We will be continuing our campaign for sustainable funding that guarantees access to high quality advice and services."

At the time Ms Warner said she fully expected service freezes to continue, a continuation of fall-over seen in recent times.

"Service freezes will have dire consequences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who need our services to have any chance of equal access to justice. Service freezes risk disastrous outcomes including increased family violence and child removal, unjust incarceration and deaths in custody," NATSILS said in a recent statement.

The body noted service demand has increased by up to 100 per cent since 2018, with government funding failing to prop up service delivery.

A body-wide meeting on May 3, which signalled the launch of NATSILS' $250 million funding request, heard firsthand accounts of the experiences from clients and workers pleading for a strengthened system.

In the days following the meeting, former NATSILS chief executive and senior lawyer Jamie McConnachie, told National Indigenous Times the federal government missed the opportunity to support the sector in the federal budget, which can ultimately result const-benefit savings, and that she was concerned "gesture politics" is providing a smoke screen while not delivering necessary change.

"What is being offered under the guise of 'justice reinvestment' and the advancement of Aboriginal people is not followed up by proper consultation, adequate funding, law reform and a recognition of our sovereignty," she said.

"The decision makers in government and often those working with government are not reflective of community and do not possess a lived experience in living in community or working with communities. Therefore, the consultation processes that are carried out can be quite poor. That is subsequently reflected at the grassroots level, at which I have worked."

On Wednesday NATSILS again called for vital funding, extending their requests to donations from the public community.

"At the end of the day, it's ($21 in Government funding) nowhere near enough. We told the government we need $250 million to prevent any more freezes and temporary service suspensions. Yet we received less than 10% of what we called for," Ms Warner said.

On Thursday a spokesperson for Attorney General Mark Dreyfus said the recent $21 million injection was made "In recognition of the demands placed on ATSILS due to the rising cost of providing critical front-line services".

"The $21 million will be provided to NATSILS for distribution to ATSILS in every state and territory to ensure ongoing access to justice for First Nations people," he said.

Ms Warner said what that means for each organisation remains unknown "but sadly, we don't think it will be enough to keep all services running across the country".

An independent investigation of the National Legal Assistance Partnership, which ends mid-2025, is set to commence in the near future.

As well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, NLAP provides funding to community legal centres and legal aid commissions.

ATSILS receive $440 million in assistance under the plan, the Attorney General's spokesperson said.

"It (the review) will include an assessment of unmet legal need and demand for disadvantaged groups across regional rural and remote Australia. The Review will also specifically look at options for alternative funding arrangements for ATSILS," he said.

"The Attorney-General's Department is working closely with states and territories to support the continued provision of front-line services to First Nations people, and remains committed to working with ATSILS and the peak body, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal service."

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