Twenty-six legal, health and not for profit bodies have signed an open letter
to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, urging him to take "critical leadership" and reverse funding cuts to Aboriginal legal services. Bodies such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS), its peak body National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), Community Legal Centres (CLCs) and the Legal Aid Commissions (LAC) are facing significant funding cuts in the next financial year, with no certainty about their futures until the May budget. The letter, signed by groups like Amnesty International Australia, Human Rights Law Centre and the Law Council of Australia, says that the organisations have already had to make difficult decisions to withdraw or reduce services due to the funding uncertainty. "These cuts will make a bad situation worse as more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will be unrepresented in courts and unable to access legal assistance, including family and civil law services," the letter said.
The consequences of the cuts, expected to be in the millions of dollars, will lead to higher rates of incarceration, the loss of jobs, as well as having a high economic cost, experts say.
Fiona McLeod, president of the Australian Bar Association, which has also signed the letter, has called for the government to reverse the cuts to the legal services. She says that rate of incarceration for indigenous Australians has already had a "shocking worsening since the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody". Indigenous Australians are 18 times more likely to serve jail time than non-indigenous Australians, and while they make up just 2.3% of the general population, Aboriginal Australians make up 27.4% of the prison population.
McLeod says the cuts are "really short-sighted in an economic sense", as any money saved will be dwarfed by the cost of more people serving longer jail terms. She says the long term impact of having more people in jail will be felt by future generations, "especially Aboriginal people, we're creating a sinkhole of future social impact for ourselves".
The Aboriginal Legal Service in NSW and ACT has started a petition against the cuts to its budget, which are still to be confirmed. The ALS expects a cut of $3.15 million from its budget of $18.95 million for the 2015-2016 financial year
Ken Lambeth, a solicitor who worked for the Aboriginal Legal Service in regional NSW for many years, says the impact of the cuts will be "enormous", especially on state-funded bodies like Legal Aid, which will be forced to pick up more clients who would have usually been served by the ALS. Lambeth says that because the ALS is an organisation "by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people", it created a "relationship of trust and confidence" with clients through field officers, which Legal Aid doesn't have. Lambeth says the rate of incarceration will get "much much worse" if funding is cut to the ALS.
The ALS did not receive any funding as part of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, despite making two submissions. The ALS had applied for continued funding of the Custody Notification Service, a 24-hour phone line that offers legal advice and mental health assistance. Its current funding is due to finish on June 30.
McLeod says that cuts to legal services will also have a marked effect on victims of domestic violence, saying the decision "flies in the face of everything the government is trying to do to protect women and children from family violence, especially Aboriginal children in the child protection system". McLeod says that in light of the government's commitment to reducing domestic violence, the cuts must be reversed immediately. In a statement yesterday, ALS chief executive Phil Naden said that if funding for its Family Law Practice wasn't guaranteed past June 30 this year, it would be shut down, with a loss of 12 jobs. Naden said this was the "first tough decision", but that no other decisions would be made until after the May budget.
In 2o13 Tony Abbott said "I hope to be a Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs", but he has come under fire for "lifestyle choice" comments relating to Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, and for saying that Australia was "nothing but bush" before white settlement in 1788.