Vulnerability set to rise as Federal Government redefines legal need

June 05, 2015 |

AR_Pic_Liana_Buchanan_OpinionThe media spotlight on the 2015 Federal Budget may have dimmed, but its full impacts on the vulnerable are still very much on the line for those seeking free legal help.

If you are facing family violence, trying to navigate family law, at risk from homelessness or tenancy issues, debt, fines, discrimination, or unfair treatment in the workplace, that could well mean you.

The Federal Government says a new five-year agreement now being negotiated with States and Territories to fund the free legal services that tackle these problems must be in place before 1 July.

This fast-tracked agreement threatens to worsen the legal assistance crisis by further rationing free legal help – adding to the impact of deep cuts in the May Federal Budget. Proposed restrictions on community legal centres threaten to narrow who can get free legal help and what counts as legal need.

That could mean we need to broaden our idea of vulnerability, because community legal centres will be able to help fewer people who fall in the gap between the poorest people who qualify for legal aid and those who can afford a private lawyer.

Until now, overstretched community legal centres have struggled to span that gap, but the free safety net they provide is being withdrawn at the same time legal need is increasing.

More people will be exposed to legal risk – and, in the case of family violence, to physical danger – as more people fall outside both the very strict legal aid guidelines and the proposed restrictions on who community legal centres can help.

It is recognition of this justice gap that in 2014 led the Productivity Commission to call for a $200 million annual boost to free legal assistance services, including legal aid commissions and community legal centres – a recommendation the Federal Government has ignored.

While clear evidence of growing legal need among the vulnerable suggests the government should invest more, it has instead adopted a position of wilful blindness to the legal need it doesn’t want to acknowledge, let alone fund. Expanding the funding to meet the need has been replaced by the artifice of ‘shrinking’ the need to match declining funding.

Responding to calls for increased funding, the government has stated the new agreement will see around $1.3 billion invested in free legal assistance over five years.

While that global figure might sound impressive at first glance, it funds different parts of the system that do very different things and meet distinct and vital needs.

The government not properly funding community legal centres because it funds legal aid is like failing to properly fund community health centres because it funds hospitals. The reality is that all parts of the legal assistance system are chronically underfunded.

The global figure also obscures big cuts planned for 2017–18, when community legal centres nationally will face a cut of nearly 30 per cent, receiving just $30.1 million – a figure in stark contrast with the nearly $700 million the government spends each year on legal assistance services for itself.

To deny that community legal centres are already using their meagre resources to focus on financial disadvantage, or to claim they are helping people who fall outside acknowledged areas of vulnerability, simply lacks credibility.

In Victoria alone, community legal centres help more than 100,000 people every year, 82 per cent of whom earn less than $26,000. Around 40 per cent of new cases opened each year relate to family violence, and this is growing.

Further rationing of free legal help through community legal centres will only create more hardship through unresolved legal problems, and, in a year the government has claimed a strong commitment to family violence, more victims.

Restrictions on who centres can help would place at risk a holistic service in which community lawyers help victims in court through the duty lawyer service, go on to represent them if needed at a contested intervention order hearing, and provide help with victims compensation or with minor property or debt settlement.

Placing further constraints on this help is not the answer, as has been acknowledged by the Federal Government in the case of free legal assistance for victims of institutional child sexual abuse participating in the Royal Commission. That help is rightly provided regardless of the victims’ means and assets.

Community legal centres need to be trusted to help those who most need it, not be subjected to constraints that will allow the Federal Government to further restrict and limit the already inadequate numbers of vulnerable people who are able to access free legal help – in effect to set the dial for more vulnerability, not less.

In March, all State and Territory Attorneys-General wrote to Federal Attorney-General George Brandis warning that legal assistance funding was in crisis. Recently, six Attorneys-General wrote again, restating that position and highlighting the additional risks posed by restricting eligibility for help from community legal centres.

If funding continues at clearly inadequate levels, and the new agreement is concluded in its current form, many of the risks described here will become reality.

The tragedy of Budget announcements is that brief media attention limits scrutiny, but their emerging impacts play out in the lives of the vulnerable over years.

Liana Buchanan is the executive officer of the Federation of Community Legal Centres, the peak body for 50 community legal centres in Victoria.

Further information

“Savings” from means-testing free legal help will increase the risk for women facing family violence (media release)

Media inquiries

Darren Lewin-Hill on 0488 773 535