IN A surprising turn of events, an organisation representing New South Wales’ community legal centres has welcomed the amount of government financial support it is to receive.
Michelle Jones, chair of Combined Community Legal Centres Group (NSW) (CCLCG) has said a recently released report by federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock and NSW Attorney-General Bob Debus recommended resourcing all existing centres to a baseline level of funding.
Centres will now be able to meet the legal needs of disadvantaged members of the community who it tries to serve, said Jones.
The Report of the Review of the NSW Community Legal Centres Funding Program acknowledges that the Community Legal Centres (CLCs) assist disadvantaged members of the community, said Jones.
It found the program that funds centres in NSW is “sound, well-conceived and well administered”, and that it represents “an effective use of public funds”.
While putting a positive spin on the Review, and noting the support of the Attorneys-General in the Report, the CLCs emphasised that the Review found the centres under-resourced and under-funded to meet the growing demands on their services.
“Increased provision of resources would enable centres to achieve more, particularly in improving accessibility of their services to indigenous Australians and other disadvantaged client groups,” Jones said.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the Commonwealth and state Attorneys-General in delivering essential legal services to improve access to justice for disadvantaged members of the community,” she said.
In the past, the issue of funding for CLCs has received a lot of publicity, and rarely has there been gratitude from the CLCs on how much funding it had received.
Late last year the Federal Government withdrew funding of employment advice services at 12 CLCs, sparking concerns that disadvantaged people will suffer as a consequence. The funding, which was due to be cut at the end of November, had provided for a full-time employment specialist lawyer at each of the 12 CLCs as part of the ‘community partners’ program.
The Office of Employment Advocate (OEA) was due to take over the provision of employment advice, with the aim of centralising the service under one government department, said to be a flow-on from the WorkChoices changes. Then shadow Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said the funding cut demonstrated that the Howard Government had its priorities poorly arranged.
“As the community comes to terms with the impact of the Government’s extreme industrial relations changes, the need for legal advice on employment matters grows and grows,” she said at the time. “I would have thought that now is the time we should be increasing resources to community legal centres, not cutting it back.”
Manager of Macquarie Legal Centre in Merrylands, Maria Girdler, said at the time that the decision was sure to adversely affect already disadvantaged citizens who depend on easy access to the service.
“I’m very disappointed that the Government has decided to stop our services, because we know we provide a very good service to disadvantaged people,” Girdler said.