Community Legal Centres essential to a fair justice system

Published on Wednesday, 01 March 2017 10:55

In Western Australia we copped the double whammy. We have had cuts to financial advice services from the Barnett government and we now have the Turnbull government intent on cutting a full third of existing funding to CLCs, even though this will do harm to both individuals and the budget bottom line. It is bad government, plain and simple. 

Mr Wilson (10:55am) — Last year the National Association of Community Legal Centres held their annual conference in Fremantle, and it was a privilege to be in the company of people from around Australia who undertake such vitally important work. If the test of a lawyer or paralegal or tenancy advocate is the depth of their contribution to the greater good, to the welfare of their fellow men and women, then community legal staff are the best of the best. That is why the government's decision to cut funding to CLCs by 30 per cent on 1 July this year is really hard to believe—even from this Attorney-General.

The cut, first of all, represents a relatively small amount of money in the context of the Commonwealth budget. It is about $10 million per annum. We have to understand that that money pays for justice. It provides access to fair legal process for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our community. You cannot say that you care about the rule of law or that you care about the equality of people before the law and at the same time support these cuts. Those positions are incompatible; they simply cannot be reconciled.

The Fremantle Community Legal Centre does essential work in my community. It supports people dealing with eviction, bankruptcy and domestic violence. Seventy-two per cent of its clients earn less than $40,000 a year; 21 per cent have mental health issues or are people with disability; 27 per cent are single parents; and 10 per cent are Indigenous Australians. Over the last three years the number of clients with family or domestic violence issues has increased, but, as a result of previous funding cuts, the number of clients the centre can assist has fallen by 17 per cent, and that is now going to get significantly worse.

Even if you do not particularly care about the effect these cuts will have on the fabric of social justice in this country, you cannot ignore the economic good sense of saving vulnerable people from a deeper crisis. The Productivity Commission has found that every dollar invested in CLCs delivers $17 of community value. You would be very, very hard pressed to find another kind of public expenditure that delivers that kind of return. Previous studies have shown that every dollar invested in CLCs saves a further $4 being pushed onto another part of the social safety net. So, if for whatever reason you did not understand the necessity of proper funding for community legal services as a matter of basic social justice, you cannot get away from the cold hard fact that every dollar you cut from CLCs costs the public purse another $4. Make no mistake: these cuts are mean; they are senseless.

In Western Australia we copped the double whammy. We have had cuts to financial advice services from the Barnett government and we now have the Turnbull government intent on cutting a full third of existing funding to CLCs, even though this will do harm to both individuals and the budget bottom line. It is bad government, plain and simple. Community legal services should be properly resourced. They should be recognised for their enormous and vital good work in our community. These cuts should be abandoned today.

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AUTHORISED BY JOSH WILSON MP
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