In July the federal government will make $13.4 million worth of cuts to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, but the move's impact is already being felt across the country. Indigenous legal services are reporting being forced to turn away clients and close remote offices and many are warning these cuts will make the country's controversial Aboriginal incarceration rates even worse.
The cuts come under the government's Further Coalition Savings plan that aims to re-prioritise the Indigenous Policy Reform Program. They're part of the $40 million in cost reductions to the legal assistance sector that were announced before the 2013 election. A spokesperson for attorney-general George Brandis told the ABC last year the cuts are an opportunity to "reform legal assistance arrangements", with more funding to come from state governments. Brandis assured the cuts would only affect policy reform and advocacy, not front line legal services, but this has been denied by the groups.
According to the government, they're necessary to get the budget back on track. If the planned cuts go ahead, it will remove around 20 percent of the services' entire budget.
But Priscilla Collins, the CEO of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, has pushed back on the assurance cuts wouldn't impact frontline services. She told VICE the groups don't have specific advocacy workers, so they'll affect their legal work. "We would only spend about $14,000 on advocacy but we're looking at cuts of around one million in our organisation," she said. Kane Ellis from Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT agreed, saying he's "dumbfounded". "It doesn't matter what anyone says, it's going to impact across our services," he told VICE.
The funding cuts also play into the debate around rising Indigenous incarceration rates. Indigenous Australians represent 2.3 percent of the population, but 27.4 percent of the country's jail population. They're already 18 times more likely to be imprisoned. Rates are more severe in juvenile cases, with nearly half of young people in detention coming from Indigenous backgrounds.
Collins said her organisation has already been forced to turn away clients in preparation for the loss of funding. "We're not taking on civil or criminal matters for fear we won't be able to continue representing them after the cuts," she said. "For every one lawyer that we lose, that's 240 Indigenous people that will miss out on representation."
With multiple requests for funding denied, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service—a peak body that provides advice to the government—will be also closing its doors in July. Many Aboriginal Legal Services across the country have also begun to shut their more remote offices. In Queensland, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS)offices in Warwick, Chinchilla, Dalby and Cooktown will be closed, while the Nhulunbuy office in the Northern Territory will also be forced to cease operations.
The National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services is one of the Indigenous legal services that will maintain funding. But they're only guaranteed one year's funding, national convenor Antoinette Braybrook told VICE, "This is not such a big win. Almost 60 percent of our national program does not have funding certainty beyond next year."
The group was only informed last week that they would be receiving the funding, and Braybrook said at least 32 of their 203 staff left during this period of uncertainty. She stated many Indigenous women had not reported violence because of the group's unsteady financial future, "Women were saying: 'Why should we? If you lose funding, who is going to help me?"
The looming funding reductions have also taken their toll on the staff at these legal services. "It's extremely stressful and there's a lot of pressure on everyone," Priscilla Collins explained. Kane Ellis agreed, saying many of his colleagues have been looking for work elsewhere. "There's panic within our workforce, they're coming to us and asking if they need to look for another job," he said. "We don't want to lose the staff that we've got. We've got great people working for us and we want to keep them."
Late last year the Productivity Commission, the government's independent research and advisory board, released a report into overcoming Indigenous disadvantage, and found significant unmet legal needs among Indigenous Australians, and argued for additional funding to these resources, not cuts. Julian Cleary said it's unfortunate the government hasn't followed this advice. "All these services are underfunded, and the Productivity Commission recommended that they be significantly increased, but what's happened is the exact opposite."
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