INDIGENOUS LEGAL services are set for a shake-up under newly proposed Commonwealth reforms. But the NT Law Society is concerned that the existing legal aid services may not be easily replaced by a commercially operated system.
Warnings last month that reforms to Indigenous legal services would be undertaken were made in a draft request for tenders to provide legal services to Indigenous Australians, which since 1970 have been the responsibility of the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS).
Minister for Indigenous Affairs Amanda Vanstone’s proposals follow recent announcements that the Federal Government would abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and its regional councils.
The NT Law Society was concerned about Aboriginal legal aid being “put up for commercial tender in the Territory”, said president Merran Short.
Vanstone’s plans for Aboriginal legal services in Australia were an attempt to tender legal services “in a competitive environment”, she said. The reforms would ensure “that Indigenous people get value for money”.
If the changes are implemented, Aboriginal people charged with minor offences like drunkenness and traffic offences would no longer be represented.
The Government document also stated that repeat offenders of violent crime would be refused further legal assistance.
More than $120 million would be committed to purchasing Indigenous legal aid services between January next year and December 2007. Successful tenderers would benefit from the introduction of the three-year funding contracts.
Tenderers were not required to be Indigenous organisations nor were they expected to employ Indigenous staff.
The Commonwealth hopes to replace six community-based regional Aboriginal Legal Services in NSW with one state-wide provider.
Arguing the Aboriginal legal services in the Territory “work very hard to overcome the challenges faced by representing clients over vast geographical distances and who come from a plethora of language groups and cultural backgrounds”, the NT Law Society has condemned the plans.
“Aboriginal field officers and translators currently make up some of the essential framework that allows for effective and culturally appropriate legal services to be delivered to Indigenous Territorians” Short said.
Also, attending bush courts in remote and isolated locations wasessential, Short said, “however, it is expensive and requires considerable human resources”. “It is hard to see how this system would be sustainable and viable under a commercial tender arrangement.”
The Northern Territory Aboriginal Justice Advocacy Committee said it would refuse to cooperate with Vanstone’s plans. Also, the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission has stated it would not tender for the Aboriginal legal aid service and has raised concerns about the potential overflow impact onto the currently overworked legal aid service.