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Aboriginal legal services face freezes across the country in funding crisis

Giovanni Torre -

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services around Australia are calling on the federal government to deliver a $250 million emergency support package to prevent imminent service freezes and unjust incarceration of Indigenous people.

NATSILS, the national peak body for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services around the country, warned on Tuesday that certain front line service locations in regional Australia face freezes within four weeks, and that a "dramatic increase" in service freezes can only be prevented or reversed with additional core funding from the Commonwealth.

Demand for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services has increased by up to 100% since 2018 while core funding from the federal government has declined in real terms in that period.

NATSILS warned that service freezes will have "dire consequences" for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who need Aboriginal legal 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," the organisation said in a statement.

NATSILS chair and ALS NSW/ACT chief executive Karly Warner said Aboriginal legal service staff are "at the brink of collapse".

"Double the services and less funding: that's the latest driver of Australia's national justice system emergency for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people," she said.

"The federal government has known about our slide into crisis for some time. They appear to be willing to let our services either collapse or turn people away.

"We are giving advance warning to our communities that without immediate intervention from the federal government we will need to reduce services within the next four weeks. We are currently drawing up plans to reduce workload of burnt out staff whilst having the minimum impact on service delivery possible.

"We are committed to doing everything we can to support our communities but there's no point in sugar-coating it - this is an extremely dire situation. This crisis can only be averted with immediate emergency funding, complemented with a sector strengthening plan for ensuring ongoing service sustainability for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people."

Ms Warner said every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person who wants to use a culturally safe legal service deserves to be able to access those services.

"Communities are crying out for greater access to ATSILS. The federal government is committed to listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices and we need them to listen right now," she said.

The current workload crisis facing ATSILS frontline services risks the physical and mental health of staff and clients, NATSILS said.

The peak legal body warned that the difficult decision to freeze services will be "devastating for our organisations because it means real people who deserve culturally appropriate legal representation are turned away and suffer unnecessarily through the justice system".

NATSILS noted that the funding crisis has been building for some time because "successive parliaments have not prioritised culturally safe services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people", adding that the current federal government was elected promising to address Aboriginal justice and "we know that all Australians want to see investment in services that work".

NATSILS said the emergency funding package needed to keep services functioning at the level needed entails a $54 million 'ATSILS Workforce Continuity Fund' to be delivered over the next six months to immediately fund additional external support where ALS lawyers are unable to reach clients and to start recruitment for new permanent staff; and $196 million over financial years 2023-24 and 2024-25 "simply to maintain current levels of service and prevent freezes in certain locations".

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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