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Senator Thorpe moves in Senate to reveal report on "dire" funding of legal services nationwide

Giovanni Torre -

Senator Lidia Thorpe has raised concerns that the federal Attorney General is intentionally withholding a report on the "dire state" of legal assistance funding, in "a move to avoid scrutiny ahead of the May budget".

On Tuesday, the Senate will vote on the Gunnai, Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung senator's order to produce documents, which would compel the government to make the report publicly available.

Senator Thorpe said on Tuesday morning that the report of the Independent Review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership (NLAP), prepared by Dr Warren Mundy, was presented to the Attorney General two weeks ago but has not yet been made public.

The NLAP includes funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Legal Aid Commissions, and Community Legal Centres. With the current NLAP due to expire in 2025, the independent review considered how future arrangements could better provide access to justice for all who need it.

Senator Thorpe noted that the legal assistance sector, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and Family Violence Prevention Legal Services, "remain critically underfunded". Legal assistance service demand has increased by up to 100 per cent since 2018, with government funding failing to maintain service delivery, she said.

The independent senator for Victoria noted that in recent times services that help First Nations women and children experiencing family violence have been forced to turn people away, and "First Peoples who don't speak English are being forced to represent themselves in court, as staffing and funding shortages cripple the sector".

Senator Thorpe said the sector needs vital funding, and "there is no good reason" for the Attorney General to withhold the report.

She noted that access to well-resourced legal services are key recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

"We know that legal assistance services across the country are overwhelmed and underfunded, leaving many disadvantaged people and First Peoples without access to legal support," Senator Thorpe said.

''Access to properly funded and culturally safe legal services is an important recommendation from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and over 30 years later remains an ongoing challenge in addressing both over-incarceration and deaths in custody.

"This so-called justice system has no interest in actual justice, only in criminalising people. Legal assistance must be properly resourced and accessible to everyone to address the incarceration and deaths in custody crisis in this country."

Senator Thorpe said "it looks like" the Attorney General is "intentionally withholding this report, to avoid coming under pressure to commit extra funding for legal services in the May Budget".

"While Labor is happy to waste billions on more police and prisons, they have consistently underfunded legal assistance services. Their attempt to hide this report indicates that they intend to continue this negligence," she said.

"When the government commenced this review, they said the process would be transparent. Now they're trying to hide this report, rather than face scrutiny of their ongoing failure to fund the front line legal services people need."

A spokesperson for the Attorney General told National Indigenous Times that the federal government "recognises the pressures these services are under, and the importance of strengthening the legal assistance sector".

"Legal assistance is essential to ensuring access to justice and equality before the law," he said.

"The National Legal Assistance Partnership (NLAP) between the Commonwealth and all states and territories is a five-year agreement to fund vital legal assistance services for the most vulnerable Australians. The current NLAP expires on 30 June 2025.

"An independent review of the NLAP to consider how future arrangements could better provide access to justice for all who need it is now being considered by federal, state and territory Attorneys-General."

The final report of the NLAP review must be made publicly available by the AG within three months of receiving it, as per section 86 of the NLAP agreement.

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