Legal centre faces ‘crisis’ budget cut

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A FRANKSTON-based legal service that has helped thousands of low-income clients to access free legal advice and representation will be forced to turn away clients when the federal government cuts funding by 30 percent in July.

Peninsula Community Legal Centre has provided legal advice to 7966 cash-strapped or vulnerable clients since opening 40 years ago, but now fears for its future and is pleading for the government to reverse its decision and restore the funding.

The government has faced fierce opposition from legal centres around the country since it announced last year it would slash funding by millions from 1 July to make up for budget shortfalls.

The cuts, expected to be sustained through to 2019–20, will see community legal centres receive $31 million from estimated total federal government spending of $511.61 billion.

Peninsula Community Legal Centre’s CEO Jackie Galloway said the cuts would jeopardise the centre’s ability to operate.

“We are facing a crisis in access to justice with so many people unable to afford lawyers but ineligible for legal aid. Community legal centres are vital in helping those who would otherwise fall through the cracks with legal services targeted to those most in need,” she said.

“Each year Peninsula Community Legal Centre helps thousands of people with a wide range of problems, including family violence, family law, infringements, debt, consumer problems, tenancy disputes and employment issues.

“The impact of the commonwealth funding cuts will be significant for the centre and will mean an unavoidable reduction in front line services, loss of staff and an increase in waiting times for legal help.

“We urge [the] government to reverse the funding cuts and provide an immediate injection of additional funding to enable the centre meet the ever increasing demand for legal services.”

The centre receives funding from various sources, including the Attorney-General’s department, the state justice and regulation department, Consumer Affairs Victoria, Victoria Legal Aid and councils.

MP for Isaacs and former Attorney General Mark Dreyfus said the Peninsula Community Legal Centre was “the frontline in the battle against domestic violence”, and had helped thousands of Australians in need of free legal assistance, but who do not qualify for legal aid.

“These cuts to community legal centres will … see vulnerable local residents including victims of family violence turned away because of a lack of staff and resources,” he said.

“Labor calls on the government to reverse these cruel cuts as a matter of urgency. Vulnerable people in Dunkley and Isaacs are at risk, and I will continue to advocate on behalf of the Peninsula centre.”

Attorney General George Brandis denied responsibility for the cuts, and told The News on Friday that the former Labor government had allocated the funding and set the expiry date of 30 June 2017.

“This is the Dreyfus funding cliff – a direct result of decisions the former Attorney-General made but now, with trademark hypocrisy, criticises”, he said.

He said commonwealth funding for the Peninsula Community Legal Centre had increased by more than 40 per cent since 2010.

“Even in a resource constrained environment, the Australian government is providing over $1.6 billion for legal aid, community legal centres and Indigenous legal assistance between 2015 and 2020.”

Senator Brandis said the government was negotiating an $18.5 million agreement for legal aid commissions in each state and territory to establish and operate family advocacy and support services in family law court registries, under the “third action plan” to relieve pressure across the legal assistance sector and provide help to people affected by domestic violence.

First published in the Mornington News – 28 February 2017

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