Community legal centers challenged to weather the storm of funding cuts and advocacy restrictions

Community legal centres are dealing funding cuts and restrictions on advocacy that could have serious ramifications for access to justice for vulnerable people across the country.Carolyn Bond AOnational spokesperson for the Community Law Australia (@CommunityLawAus) access to justice campaign, outlines the changes and explains their likely impact on access to justice, freedom of speech and the development of sound justice policies.

Community legal centres (CLCs) already struggling to meet demand for free legal help now have to contend with significant funding cuts through the May Federal Budget as well as new restrictions on law reform and policy advocacy.

The changes mean that “law reform” and “legal policy” activities are no longer part of Commonwealth Government funded CLC services. The Federal Government also removed an undertaking in the previous funding agreement that the agreement doesn’t limit the centres’ rights to enter public debate or criticise government.

Some examples of the results of this valuable policy and law reform work were presented to a national conference in Alice Springs in mid-August, which was attended by representatives from about 200 community legal centres from around Australia.

The Inner City Legal Centre in Sydney talked about how they worked with other organisations and the police ahead of Mardi Gras in 2014, leading to significant improvements in police interaction with participants, reduced arrests, and rebuilding of trust between police and a community often in need of protection and other police services.

Conference attendees heard about how the policy work of a number of specialist women’s legal services led to changing laws and processes that are increasing protection for vulnerable witnesses in family violence matters.

A study was also launched at the conference that illustrated the benefits to the community of policy and law reform work.

The study, which was commissioned by the Financial Rights Legal Centre and CLCs NSW said:

As well as the demonstrated social and economic benefit to disadvantaged people and the whole of society, and the increase in efficiency of service delivery and access to justice through addressing systemic issues affecting large numbers of people, the take up by government of policy and law reform initiatives in the [examples studied] indicates that such activities strongly support the objectives of government, and are thus matters in the public interest. [emphasis mine]

While a small proportion of CLCs’ work, law reform and legal policy activities are important because they are often effective in preventing problems before they arise. It is this fact that places the Government’s approach clearly at odds with a Draft Productivity Commission report that said “strategic advocacy can benefit thosepeople affected by a particular systemic issue” and can “also benefit the community more broadly and improve access to justice…”.

The Productivity Commission also noted that “legal assistance lawyers…are uniquely placed to identify systemic issues, particularly those affecting disadvantaged Australians”. [Access to Justice Arrangements - Draft Productivity Commission Report, page 623]

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus QC addressed the conference, commenting that the Draft Productivity Commission report “affirmed the importance of CLC advocacy”, stating that CLC advocacy had addressed “some of the sweeping inequities Australia still suffers”.

It was clear from input from some centres that the combination of funding cuts and the advocacy restrictions have had an impact on the willingness of some centres to speak out about issues that impact their clients. While the Government has not come out and prohibited centres from criticising government, some of our members feel that that this implicit in the Government’s actions.

Centres have been advised of how $19.6 million of Federal funding cuts will be applied, but don’t know how a further $6 million of cuts will be applied from mid-2017.

This combination of recent funding cuts and advocacy restrictions in advance of further funding cuts is a “perfect storm” for the sector.

Community legal centres are seeking to prevent problems by effecting law reform and changing policies to help reduce pressure on casework that remains chronically underfunded at State and Federal level.

Whether centres can give hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people the free legal help they need, and continue to work to prevent legal problems arising, will depend on centres being brave enough to weather the storm.

Carolyn Bond AO, is the national spokesperson for the Community Law Australia access to justice campaign.

Further reading:
Last chance to be heard for law services, struggling to protect the most vulnerable, The Guardian Australia
Advocacy and frontline services vital to achieve access to justice, Community Law Australia
Advocacy case studies from Consumer Action and the Financial Rights legal Centre (PDF)