The Australian Government’s decision not to slash $55 million from the community legal sector over three years, including $16.7 million for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, is a welcome last minute reprieve. However, legal services will still be chronically underfunded, exposing, in particular, Indigenous women, children and men to inadequate legal support.
“Our justice system can only be fair when everyone is fairly represented within it. But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are drastically overrepresented within the justice system – they are one out of every fifty Australians, but one in four prisoners,” said Julian Cleary, Indigenous Rights Campaigner at Amnesty International Australia.
“Unmet legal need contributes to the tragedy of more and more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, children and men being separated from their families and communities.”
“Attorney-General George Brandis has described the incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a “national tragedy” – which it is.”
“His announcement today is welcome, and a credit to the organisations and community groups who fought for this. But to genuinely end that tragedy the Government must now make up the shortfall in funding. This is vital to ensure that all people experiencing legal need, whether victims of family violence or people charged with a criminal offence, have full access to legal assistance.”
Sustainable funding needed
The Productivity Commission has recommended that Federal, State and Territory Governments commit an additional $200 million in annual funding to the community legal sector. It highlighted that funding uncertainty has affected Indigenous legal services for too long and that urgent additional resources are required.
The Productivity Commission also found that the “inevitable consequence of these unmet legal needs is a further cementing of the longstanding over-representation of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system.”
“This Government must listen to and work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and Family Violence Prevention Legal Services to develop sustainable funding. This will support Indigenous legal services to have the best possible impact with Indigenous communities,” said Julian Cleary.