Uniting Church fights ‘unthinkable’ cuts to legal aid

Legal gavelThe Uniting Church has called on the federal government to increase funding for legal assistance services ahead of a mid-year budgetary review.

In an open letter addressed to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Uniting Church President Stuart McMillan and Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress chair Rev Dennis Corowa urged the government to reverse funding cuts to Community Legal Centres (CLC) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS).

They also called for an injection of an additional $120 million per year into the legal assistance sector, in line with the Productivity Commission’s recommendation as the government prepares to deliver its Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) review of the federal budget.

CLCs provide legal advice and representation to people who cannot afford a lawyer. They help deal with a range of issues such as family disputes, domestic violence, debt and housing.

Approximately 26.6 per cent of CLC clients have a disability and 15.3 per cent identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples.

CLCs struggle to keep up with demand, reportedly turning away 159,220 people last year. A funding cut of $34.8 million to CLCs is scheduled over the next three years.

Mr McMillan and Mr Corowa said many Uniting Church congregations, ministers and agencies have expressed concern at insufficient Commonwealth funding for the legal assistance sector.

“People experiencing disadvantage will become even more vulnerable,” the letter said.

“When large numbers of people are already missing out on legal help, to further cut access to legal assistance is unthinkable.”

The Church is also concerned about the future of ATSILS, which is facing cuts of more than $6 million in July 2017 compared to previous funding agreements.

“The Uniting Church has a special relationship of Covenant with its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members,” Mr McMillan and Mr Corowa said.

“The proposed funding cuts to ATSILS will have devastating consequences. This will mean unavoidable withdrawal of frontline services, leaving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people unrepresented in courts and unable to access culturally competent legal services.”

National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC) national spokesperson Dan Stubbs thanked the Uniting Church for their support with the legal sector regarding the cuts as representing a “funding cliff” that would see almost resources reduced by almost a third.

“We welcome the support of the Uniting Church for the vital work of the legal assistance sector, in particular CLCs and ATSILS, and their concern about the 30 per cent funding cliff facing CLCs from 1 July next year,” Mr Stubbs said.

“It is time for the Attorney-General and Prime Minister to listen, to reverse the funding cliff, and to provide the necessary additional funding to the legal assistance sector. The Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook to be announced on Monday provides a perfect opportunity to do so.”

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