THE FEDERAL Government last week decided to withdraw funding of employment advice services at 12 community legal centres (CLCs), sparking concerns that disadvantaged people will suffer as a consequence.
The funding, which is due to be cut at the end of November this year, has until now 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) is 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.
Shadow Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said the funding cut demonstrated that the Howard Government has 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. “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, believes the decision is 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.
The Macquarie Legal Centre currently employs a fulltime employment specialist solicitor who provides advice to around 600 people annually. This includes face-to-face appointments and late Thursday night availability every week to people in the Western Suburbs area.
“We don’t know how [the new] system will work, but we do know that we are based in a community… in a shopping centre with access to trains and buses. We’re very visible,” Girdler said. “The OEA I don’t think has any shopfronts like we have. It therefore may be more difficult for people to find out about their services, and to access their services.”
At this stage the Government has been reluctant to explain just how the new service will operate under the OEA, or why CLCs cannot work effectively in conjunction with the OEA.
“I think it is a pity to end community services, even if Government thinks it can play a role. Because community services are out where the people are … we can value add to services. Government still has a role, but I think community services are an important part of advice giving,” Girdler said.
Cutting the funding at the 12 CLCs may well place additional pressure on other CLCs that do not utilise employment specialists.
“If our service is de-funded, as it is proposed to be, then other services will feel the impact,” Girdler said. “We have one solicitor who specialises in employment law, and deals with Australian workplace agreements. If that service is no longer available then other services don’t necessarily have the expertise to pick up where we left off.”
The decision by the Government follows Attorney-General Philip Ruddock’s choice in late August to deny funding for the 2006 national conference for CLCs, the first A-G to do so in 15 years, as reported in Lawyers Weekly.
“This is just the latest decision in a Government campaign to under-resource CLCs,” Roxon said.
“The entire federal CLC budget is only $24 million for the next financial year. It isn’t being increased to even cover inflation, let alone increased to establish new centres in areas that have been ignored for years,” Roxon said.
“Yet the Government spends more than seven times that amount on getting its own legal advice. One firm alone was contracted to get $19 million from the Government — almost the whole CLC budget to one firm.”