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‘A serious setback’: WRC calls for additional funding for community legal centres

Following the 2024–25 budget, a community legal centre said it will have to reduce services for First Nations people, in what has been described as a “serious setback”.

user iconLauren Croft 23 May 2024 Big Law
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Last week (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.

As part of the budget, the government 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.

This has since been met with criticism from legal bodies and community centres – and comes after LGBTI Legal Service said it had been forced to turn away individuals due to severe underfunding, emphasising that LGBTI specialist community legal services were “at breaking point”.


Earlier this month, Community Legal Centres Australia also urged the government to increase funding to frontline centres to address women’s safety, citing that an additional $125 million in funding was needed.

Now, due to not receiving adequate funding, the Welfare Rights Centre (WRC) said it will be forced to reduce its services, with the First Nations Access Program the first service to be cut after receiving no government support for the past 18 months.

The First Nations Access Program develops culturally safe community engagement programs that include workshops and targeted resources, as well as employs a First Nations access officer. WRC recently visited Dubbo and Nyngan to raise awareness of the centre’s services and deliver training with one of its social security specialist solicitors. However, WRC board director Thom Calma said that without funding, WRC will have to wind back this service.

“I am proud that WRC employs an Aboriginal person as the First Nations access officer. A person with lived experience who understands the issues faced by mob, such as intergenerational trauma, a mistrust of government and disproportionate gaps in health, education, employment, and justice,” he said.

“We have seen, firsthand, the impact that the First Nations access officer can have for individuals and community. WRC invests in the First Nations access officer because it recognises the unique complexities faced by First Nations people and the importance of this role in achieving fair and just outcomes for mob. Without the First Nations access officer, WRC will not be able to achieve these outcomes, this is a serious setback for the centre.”

Welfare Rights Centre CEO Katherine Boyle added that many First Nations people face significant barriers to accessing their Centrelink entitlements, as well as issues with providing identification and other documents, misunderstandings about care arrangements for children and the overall complexity of the social security system, which result in rejections or cancellations of payments and unfair debts.

“There are whole families in Western NSW surviving on just one Centrelink payment because carers have given up trying to get Carers Payment, young people have given up trying to get Youth Allowance, people with disability have given up trying to get Disability Support Pension. These people are entitled to Centrelink payments, but they have given up because the social security system is too difficult to navigate.

“Following the defeat of the Voice referendum, and in the wake of the robodebt royal commission, and in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, it’s just so disappointing that the federal government has not invested more in social security advocacy services that are seeking to make a difference to the levels of poverty experienced by First Nations people in NSW,” Boyle said.

“Without a First Nations access officer, Welfare Rights Centre will struggle to reach communities that desperately need help with Centrelink problems. Without additional funding to replace the years of temporary funding, most of which expires in weeks, Welfare Rights Centre will be forced to reduce its legal services, impacting First Nations people needing legal help with Centrelink problems.”