Funding security for commercial legal services

Canberra’s community legal services have had a tough few years – demand for free legal aid has skyrocketed during the pandemic, and organizations fear they will have to cut staff and service capacity. But an additional eight million from the Commonwealth will give them the certainty of the funding they seek.

Commonwealth Attorney General Michaelia Cash announced $ 8.4 million for ACT under the National Legal Assistance Partnership 2020-2025 (NLAP) – part of more than $ 2.3 billion in Australia for legal aid services over the next five years.

“This is a valuable additional benefit of legal services; there’s a lot of demand out there, ”ACT Attorney General Shane Rattenbury said.

“This money will mean more customers will come through our door. Our community legal centers and LegalAid will be able to serve more people, help more people solve their legal problems and ensure better access to justice.

“It’s extremely important to have that certainty of funding,” said Farzana Choudhury, senior counsel at Canberra Community Law, one of the organizations receiving funding. “We’re a very busy community legal center, and there is so much we can do, but without the resources to do it, the help we provide will always be limited. “

Earlier this year, Canberra Liberal Leader Elizabeth Lee called on the ACT government to provide Canberra Community Law with $ 550,000 after short-term Commonwealth funding ends.

Mr Rattenbury said at the time that the 2021-2022 budget would provide the funding certainty Ms Lee requested, but the budget cabinet could not provide a response within a week. The community sector breathed a sigh of relief that they would receive funding. (Ms Lee protested, “Community law providers received no funding certainty from this Labor-Green ACT government at a time when vulnerable Canberrans were in desperate need of legal services.”)

In the October budget, the ACT government provided $ 2 million for Canberra community law and other community legal services, and $ 2.5 million for legal aid.

Ms. Lee welcomed today’s announcement.

“Morrison government funding has secured a future for community legal services and ensures that all Canberrans, regardless of their background, can access quality legal services,” she said.

Mr Rattenbury said the $ 8 million funding would help vulnerable and low-income women – including victims-survivors of violence – and those in need of mental health supports.

During the pandemic, the number of people suffering from mental health problems increased; In the past fiscal year, a third of its clients reported mental health issues, Ms. Choudhury said.

“This whole year has been incredibly stressful, especially for people with lived experience of mental illness,” she said. “There are real challenges in terms of access to services, employment, access to Centrelink payments such as disability support pension and housing are things we encounter in our daily practice. Having funding to help us meet this need is greatly appreciated.

Canberra Community Law will expand its Parachute program (a specialized legal service that helps women victims of domestic violence with Centrelink and housing), and will establish a Mental Health Justice Clinic (targeted legal assistance and community education to help those with Alzheimer’s Disease. mental illnesses to solve legal problems early before they escalate).

Likewise, Legal Aid ACT will hire a duty counsel for its family violence unit and a dedicated mental health support worker for its family advocacy support services.

The Women’s Legal Center will provide specialist mental health support to clients accessing its domestic violence unit and will employ a lawyer to help women facing sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

CARE Inc. will expand legal services to help clients with mental health issues cope with financial matters.

Although the lockdown is over, community legal centers have told the ACT government that vulnerable Canberrans still feel the consequences, and that some of these complex legal issues have “a long tail,” Rattenbury acknowledged.

The four-year funding would give community legal organizations the confidence to invest in both their programs and their staff, he said. Longer-term funding arrangements would allow them to better support their clients and invest in staff and training, rather than spending their time applying for grants.

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