The Government Just Backflipped On Community Legal Centres – Here’s Why They’re So Important

Thousands of young people rely on community legal centres for support every year.

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Alex was in a bad way.

With a history of drug and alcohol problems, housing struggles and 40 percent deafness in both ears, the 20-year-old was in crippling debt from a car loan, suffering from workplace bullying due to his hearing issues and was being hounded for overdue fines outstanding from drug driving charges.

His legal battles led him into the arms of Youthlaw: an outreach and advocate service for young people, whose lawyers assisted Alex in negotiating his criminal charges and allowing him to take part in residential rehabilitation. He was linked up with employment legal services to discuss his workplace bullying, as well as financial counsellors to settle his loan debt, along with housing support staff and drug and alcohol services to get him back on his feet.

Alex’s story is just one of many being shared by the National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC) to help show how important organisations like Youthlaw are to the thousands of Australians who rely on them every year for legal support.

Last year the federal government announced that community legal centres would have their funding cut by 30 percent from July 1 this year. The NACLC has been running a campaign calling on the cuts to be reversed by demonstrating how important community legal centres are.

This morning the federal government announced it was backing down and would restore $56 million in funding. But the uncertainty around funding levels has already had an impact, with one centre already having announced its closure.

It Might Be Too Late For Some Centres

Earlier this month, WA’s Youth Legal Service announced it was closing after 30 years due to the announced funding cuts. The organisation’s outgoing chairperson, retired judge Kate O’Brien, said “the impact on children being left to fend for themselves in court will mean a risk of injustice.”

The government’s initial announcement went against all expert advice. In 2014, the Productivity Commission actually recommended a funding increase of $200 million a year, purely to help meet service demand. These services support more than 215,000 people each year.

Before today’s backflip the CEO of the National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC), Nassim Arrage, told Junkee that the impacts of the cuts will be devastating. “We already turn away over 160,000 people every year and these cuts will mean even more people will miss out on the legal help they need,” he said.

Some State Governments Stepped Up

In the past few months some state governments announced their own rescue packages, designed to protect community legal centres. Luckily for NSW centres, the state attorney-general Mark Speakman announced more than $6 million over two years in additional funding. That funding boost helped prevent the sacking of 30 community lawyers across the state and has prevented the closure of key community legal centres in Tweed Heads and Katoomba.

Queensland and Tasmania’s state governments have also announced funding packages, but other states and territories haven’t been so lucky.

Even though the cuts have been scrapped, that might not be enough to save WA’s Youth Legal Service. The centre is still waiting to hear what the state government can offer, and they’re already in the process of preparing for closure due to the uncertainty around funding allocations.

Young People Need These Services

Kurtis is another young person who relied on a community legal centre for representation. The 23-year-old was charged with affray and common assault last year, but argued his actions were in self defence.

He received support from the Marrickville Legal Centre who helped get the charges dismissed. Kurtis, who has since gone on to become a youth worker, told Junkee that the the legal centre’s support was crucial to his case.

“It was the first time I’d been in trouble with the law. They helped me out and let me know what was going on throughout the whole legal process,” he said. “A lot of young people can’t afford solicitors. Not only that, but they don’t really understand the whole situation like where to go to get help and where to go to find lawyers.

“Working with them was a really comfortable environment. They really help you understand the whole situation you’re in and the charges you’re facing.”

Clearly, these services are hugely important to a big part of Australian community, particularly vulnerable young people. The reversal of the funding cuts will help, but as we’ve seen it’s potentially come too late for some centres.

And the centres need more than a re-instatement of previously slashed funds. They need additional resources. As Darren Lewin-Hill, a former community legal sector campaigner, put it: “Funding will remain massively inadequate to meet clear and increasing legal need.”

Jackson Barron contributed to this story.

Feature image via Mark Riboldi