The Commonwealth Government has signed an agreement with the states to secure five years of funding for community legal centres, palming off responsibility for legal assistance to the states.
Michael Smith, chair of the National Association of Community Legal Centres, said that while the secured funding is good news for the moment, the effect of the diminished Commonwealth role on centres remains to be seen.
“We’re interested to see what involvement the Commonwealth government will now have with legal assistance because in some ways the new agreement devolves a lot of the decision making and power to the states to decide how legal assistance operates at state level ,” said Smith.
“Some states haven’t got much experience in that area and the Commonwealth has a really important role with federal law whether it’s family law or consumer law… and yet they won’t have a direct role in how legal assistance responds to those.”
The agreement locks in funding for the next five years, but cuts of around 30 percent are still scheduled to occur after two years.
“It means that funding for legal aid commissions as well as community legal centres is locked in for the next five years so it’s good to have certainty around the quantum of funding but community legal centres in particular are still worried because the current [agreement] does lock in a 30 percent cut in funding in two years’ time,” said Smith.
“It’s really concerning to have five year agreement that locks in huge cuts to community legal centres that are helping people in need every day.”
In response to the funding cuts, Redfern Legal Centre has teamed up with the University of New South Wales
Law School to save the RLC Police Powers practice (now the UNSW Police Powers), allowing the legal centre to elevate issues around policing and police powers state wide.
The partnership will provide internship opportunities for law students, combining the expertise of both the legal centre and UNSW students to improve policy in the state.
“With UNSW’s sponsorship, RLC will be able to continue to advocate for vulnerable people across NSW,” said Joanna Shulman, CEO of Redfern Legal Centre.
“This partnership will strengthen our ability to shine a spotlight on the continuing issues over policing of vulnerable groups and police accountability.”