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Legal orgs remain ‘severely under-resourced’ post-budget

While the FCFCOA has received funding to resolve a mountain of migration cases as part of the 2024–25 budget, legal assistance services, including those for First Nations Australians, say they are in a “funding crisis” and need additional resources.

user iconLauren Croft 16 May 2024 Big Law
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On Tuesday (14 May), Treasurer Jim Chalmers handed down the 2024–25 budget, which includes a number of key measures relevant to the legal profession, from investments in community legal services to strengthening Australia’s anti-money laundering laws. You can find out everything lawyers need to know here.

Following the release of the budget, various legal bodies have both welcomed and criticised the Albanese government’s budget and various funding efforts.

FCFCOA funding


As part of the budget, the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCOA) has been provided $64.4 million in funding over the next four years to assist with efficiently resolving migration cases. The funding will be used to appoint four extra judges and support staff, including cultural liaison officers and staff, to assist with the efficient handling of interpreter requests and referrals to pro bono legal assistance. It also includes capital funding that provides for purpose-built court facilities.

These extra resources were welcomed by Chief Justice Alstergren AO, Chief FCFCOA Judge.

“This funding will enable better access to justice for parties to migration cases, a large proportion of whom are unrepresented and require an interpreter. Approximately 79 per cent of migration applicants are unrepresented, and 75 per cent of those require an interpreter, with more than 70 different languages routinely requested,” he said.

“The newly created role of cultural liaison officers will provide procedural support and guidance to culturally and linguistically diverse parties. They will help people to navigate the court process, which ultimately provides for more efficiency.”

Migration represents the second-largest area of the court’s work after family law – and after unprecedented increases in filing volumes, the court’s pending migration caseload more than doubled in four years between 2017 and 2021.

Deputy Chief Judge Patrizia Mercuri added that additional staff will greatly assist in resolving cases.

“The significant increase in the number of migration-related applications to the court in recent years has led to an unprecedented level of pending cases,” she said.

“The timely appointment of additional judges will allow the court to implement measures that focus on getting matters heard sooner, and addressing those pending cases.”

Legal assistance

The government also invested $44.1 million in legal assistance, including a one-year indexation supplementation in funding for legal aid commissions, community centres, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services.

While this is “undoubtedly needed”, Law Council of Australia president Greg McIntyre SC said the funding falls “far short of what the sector requires to meet the growing demand it faces”.

“Our legal assistance services are severely under-resourced. As a result, they are unable to meet demand and are turning clients away. We have consistently called for the Commonwealth to urgently restore its share of legal assistance funding under the National Legal Assistance Partnership and are disappointed it has not done so in full in tonight’s budget. We have estimated this requires an annual boost in funding of around $500 million,” he said.

“We must not wait until next year’s budget to adequately resource the legal assistance sector to do its vital work. While the funding shortfall remains a priority, there also needs to be funding certainty for these organisations. This requires long-term commitments from Commonwealth, state and territory governments so that services can plan ahead, recruit and retain staff.”

First Nations funding ‘disappointing’

The Albanese government also revealed an investment of $20.8 million to improve outcomes for First Nations people at all stages of the native title process.

This investment includes $20.2 million over four years to the Federal Court of Australia and National Native Title Tribunal to preserve culturally and historically significant native title records and accelerate the resolution of unresolved native title claims, as well as half a million dollars over two years to assist the Australian Law Reform Commission to review the future acts regime within the Native Title Act.

The government also committed $11.7 million to continue to embed culturally specific and appropriate dispute resolution services in the community by extending the First Nations Family Dispute Resolution pilot program for another two years.

However, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (ATSILS) in each state and territory called for a $229 million injection in the budget to ensure they can continue to deliver their critical services – and National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), the peak body representing ATSILS, said that in total, the budget only allocated approximately $15 million.

“We are angry and distressed that our funding crisis will continue for another year. This crisis is caused by decades of underfunding by successive parliaments, coupled with skyrocketing demand for our services,” deputy chair Nerita Waight said.

“Some ATSILS have had to reduce or freeze services already. After this disappointing budget, they are at the precipice of being forced to take further action. Further service freezes would have dire consequences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. When culturally safe, accessible legal help isn’t available, the result is more children taken from their families, more family violence, more unjust imprisonment, and the very real possibility of more deaths in custody.”

ATSILS are primarily funded under the 2020–2025 National Legal Assistance Partnership (NLAP), which also funds legal aid commissions, community legal centres, and family violence prevention legal services across Australia. An independent review of the NLAP was recently completed and delivered to Commonwealth and state attorneys-general. As such, NATSILS called for a public release of the review.

“Though ATSILS are yet to be provided with a copy of the review two months after its delivery to government, we understand that it recommends a significant increase to our baseline funding from mid-2025, when the NLAP agreement is due to be renewed,” Waight said.

“Without additional investment, we are going to see services reduced and cut across the legal assistance sector. We’ll see a greater number of workers leave the sector for more appropriate remuneration and recognition, and these issues will further compound the investment required to meet growing unmet legal need.”

Women’s safety and male violence

Prior to the budget, the government pledged $925.5 million to initiatives to prevent violence against women, including permanent funding to help victim-survivors leave violent relationships.

Chief Executive Women (CEW) welcomed these measures, but its president, Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz, said various improvements could still be made.

“The budget does not comprehensively address the circumstances of women living in poverty in Australia, which is concerning. JobSeeker payments sit below the poverty line at around just 43 per cent of minimum wage, trapping the most vulnerable Australians in poverty instead of enabling them into work,” she said.

“Women’s safety and ability to escape gendered violence is intertwined with their economic security, and we also know that more needs to be done to fund the services supporting women escaping violence.

“We strongly urge the government to make these priorities for future policy and budgets.”