With the announcements from politicians of various stripes that rained down on International Women’s Day this week, a group who could be forgiven a cynical frown would be Western Australia’s community legal centres. They are the primary legal service aimed at assisting victims of domestic violence, and, like all community legal centres in Australia, are looking down the barrel of a 30% funding cut from the federal government come next financial year. In Tasmania, the state government recently announced they would make up some of that shortfall. But even election season in Western Australia couldn’t get any such commitment out of either of the major parties.

Helen Creed, executive director of the Community Legal Centres Association (WA) Inc, told Crikey despite six weeks of lobbying in the lead-up to Saturday’s poll, neither party had made a commitment.

“We discussed the matter with [Attorney-General] Minister [Michael] Mischin, and he was very clear that their policy hadn’t changed,” she said. “Mark McGowan sent us a letter outlining some of the difficulties they had with knowing exactly what the state’s finances looked like — he gave in-principle support, but didn’t commit specific funding.”

Community legal services are the primary free legal service available to victims of domestic violence.

Creed said CLC services could be as simple as helping someone with a form, or explaining how a particular legal process — like taking out a restraining order — works, or it could be as involved as representing someone in court, or in formal mediation.

“But it’s not just family law,” she said. “We also deal with legal issues around, say, tenancy or money — DV is a huge cause of homelessness, for example, so we can help make sure a woman doesn’t end up on the streets, or in the car.”

Creed said the focus on domestic issues grew out of a noticeable gap in services in WA.

“There isn’t a specific community legal service for domestic violence issues, whereas there is for welfare, for mental health, for employment, indigenous issues and other areas.”

Mischin told Crikey a Liberal-led government would “continue to discuss with the Commonwealth the need to get a fair deal for Western Australian legal assistance services”.

“In August 2015, Western Australia ratified a new National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services, which provides the terms of Commonwealth legal assistance funding to Western Australia until 2019-20,” he said. 

“Under this agreement, Legal Aid Western Australia received a 14% increase in Commonwealth funding, the only state jurisdiction to receive any Commonwealth funding increase. These additional funds have been directed towards family law matters where serious family violence has been identified as an issue.”

Creed acknowledged that Legal Aid and the Citizens Advice Bureau provided support to domestic violence victims, but that in both cases “it’s only a portion of their services” with Legal Aid largely dealing with criminal matters and the CAB facing the same cuts.

“Both Legal Aid WA and community legal centres have also been significantly affected by the inability of the Legal Contribution Trust Fund to make distributions to the sector,” Mischin said.

The Legal Contribution Trust Fund is made up of interest on solicitors’ trust funds — it is not  money from Treasury, but it is under the government control — and Mischin, as AG, signs off on the allocations. It can fund community legal centres, Creed says — there just wasn’t any money for them this year.

“It is the fund that pays out claims when solicitors do the wrong thing and apparently there were several large claims this year, so there was nothing left to make the usual payments to either Legal Aid or CLCs.”

WA Labor sent Crikey a copy of McGowan’s letter to Helen Creed. It committed a Labor government to meeting stakeholders to discuss their funding uncertainties “cognisant of imminent deadlines”. It further details reforms around reducing red tape and waste in the community sector. Labor declined to comment further. 

Peter Fray

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