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#AceNewsDesk – The Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) will freeze operations in 13 local courts in regional NSW from Monday, after a request for emergency federal funding wasn’t met.
Its overseeing body had requested a $250 million support package ahead of the May budget to maintain current levels of service in seven states and territories.
“We are facing an unprecedented crisis caused by the systemic undervaluing of the services we provide,” ALS chief executive Karly Warner said.
But the federal government has so far refused to be drawn on whether that additional funding will be provided.
This has prompted the ALS to withdraw indefinitely from courts in Byron Bay, Eden, Forster, Junee, Lithgow, Moss Vale, Muswellbrook, Scone, Singleton, Temora, Tenterfield, West Wyalong and Wauchope.
Some services in Queensland have been suspended since April, and Ms Warner, who is also the chair of the peak body National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), feared the same would happen in NSW.
“Across the country, we’re being forced into difficult decisions as to where we can stem the bleeding of this workload crisis for our team members, while also minimising the pain for our clients and communities,” she told ABC News.
Demand higher than ever
Demand for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander legal services in Australia has increased by “up to 100 per cent since 2018”, but Ms Warner says funding from the Commonwealth for the past five years hasn’t reflected that.
It means staff are stretched across more areas and more clients are left without help.
“We have to make sure we are prioritising the wellbeing of our team members, while also balancing high quality, culturally safe support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people all around the country who need and deserve access,” Ms Warner said.
ALS relies on split funding between the NSW and federal government, but is largely the responsibility of the Commonwealth.
The NSW freeze means there will be “dire consequences” for some clients, who rely on the ALS for help in family, criminal, care and protection law, as well as tenancy services.
They will likely have to lean on legal help that lacks cultural safety or sensitivity, or have no support at all, according to Ms Warner.
She said this can lead to higher incarceration rates with intergenerational impacts.
“[Recently] a private solicitor negotiated a guilty plea with one of our clients without clearly explaining the consequences to that client, and this resulted in them losing all contact with their children for two years.
“There isn’t any point sugarcoating this.”
‘Not a priority’ in federal budget
Muswellbrook is one of 13 local court houses impacted by the suspension.(ABC News: Cecilia Connell)none
Last week’s federal budget included a $99 million allocation to start up a First Nations Justice Package, which includes $13.5 million to legal services across Australia, and $1 million to NATSILS.
However, this is less than 6 per cent of what was requested to support the seven branches it represents.
“It seems that access to justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is not a priority for the government in the federal budget,” Ms Warner said.
She said the increase in core funding from this financial year to the next, paid through the National Legal Assistance Partnership, will be just over 2 per cent.
As of April, the annual inflation rate sits at 7 per cent.
“We have felt the pinch of increased cost of living as an organisation, and two per cent doesn’t come close to covering the increased cost of delivering these services,” she said.
Review of funding promised
A spokesperson for Mr Dreyfus says the funding model will be reviewed.(AAP: Mick Tsikas)none
A spokesperson for Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the government was committed to working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to achieve better justice outcomes.
“The Albanese government recognises the critical role Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services … play in ensuring First Nations people have access to culturally appropriate and safe services and programs,” they said.
The current National Legal Assistance Program ends at the end of June 2025 but an independent review of the agreement will commence 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,” the spokesperson said.
Ms Warner hopes the services in NSW and Queensland are quickly reinstated.
“Our teams and employees are passionate and dedicated to their work, but they have to put food on the table,” she said.
“The inadequacy of our funding has put us in a position where even though staff would like to dedicate their careers to us, often move elsewhere where they can get higher pay and different working conditions.”
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