THE QUEENSLAND State Government last week announced the delivery of its community legal centre grants, which are set to improve the quality of legal assistance in the state.
Totalling more than $550,000, the money is expected to help upgrade technology and services in particular. The grants reveal the Government’s recognition that the 17 community legal centres affected “are at the coalface of the justice system”, Attorney General and Minister for Justice Rod Welford said.
But in an interview with Lawyers Weekly, the legal centres expressed continued concern about the “serious” lack of funding, arguing that although they were grateful for the bonus, funding was “really going backwards”.
The Toowoomba Community Legal Service received more than $166,000 under the recent grant, which is already pigeonholed to expand the centre’s Rural Women Outreach legal service. As well, the money would be spent on improving technology, including introducing teleconferencing facilities, said manager John Stewart.
Arguing that the Service was grateful for the “bonus” grant, Stewart said it only allows them to “just do the things that perhaps should have been done a long time ago”.
The funding is essentially not enough to cover the services provided by the Toowoomba centre, Stewart said. “We are always under funded,” he said. “The funding to allow the infrastructure we would like is not there either.”
Legal centres such as this are the “poor cousins” of Legal Aid and the firms, according to Stewart, although he acknowledged his centre was also better off than others.
The Toowoomba funding was highlighted by the Government in a statement due to its creating a “central hub” that will use technology to support and enhance the work of a number of smaller centres. These may include Goondiwindi, St George, Cunnamulla, Roma, Tara or Charleville.
The South West Brisbane Community Legal Centre, which received nearly $57,000 in the recent bout of funding, will not be used for technology, a spokesperson said. The funding will help ensure the Centre’s financial viability, and has helped to employ a solicitor part-time to undertake a project in child protection.
The community centres are allowed to use the funding to improve their financial viability, as well as for technology improvements and projects, said Bill Mitchell, convenor of the Queensland Association of Independent Legal Services (QAILS), which represents 33 legal centres in Queensland.
Townsville used its $32,000 grant to improve financial viability. But, Mitchell said, the funding is still not enough to cover the cost of running the legal centre there. This “one-off bonus” is to be reflected in the Legal Profession Act 2004, in a statutory interest fund that will allow centres to apply for bonuses.
When you look at the overall funding, said Mitchell, there is not enough, despite a good contribution from both the Commonwealth and state governments. The Commonwealth contributes about 63 per cent, and almost all the rest comes from the state government, according to QAILS figures.
Mitchell and QAILS are now lobbying the state government for increases, arguing that they do not receive enough to be viable. Queensland community legal centres receive close to $2 million in total each year, but QAILS is calling for a further $1 million from the state government, which would lessen the disparity between state and federal funding.