The Abbott Government’s $42 million funding cut over four years to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) will not only make access to justice more remote for Indigenous Australians, it will exacerbate the shocking rate of Indigenous over-imprisonment.
The funding cuts were revealed in the final days of the Federal election campaign. Despite suggestions from Warren Mundine, the head of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, that they would be reconsidered, a spokesperson for Treasurer Joe Hockey confirmed that the decision is not being reviewed.
The Coalition apparently believes that the cuts won’t affect “frontline services” as the funding only covers policy and law reform.
ATSILS receive around $70 million a year in Federal funding. Leaving aside the importance of law reform work for moment, stripping $10 million a year from ATSILS’ funding will go far deeper than affecting just law reform work.
These cuts will deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the legal advice and representation they desperately need to deal with serious legal issues affecting them such as criminal law, family law, discrimination and tenancy issues.
Repeated parliamentary inquiries have highlighted the shortfall in funding for Indigenous legal services.
If the Abbott Government doesn’t reverse its decision, the eight ATSILS across the country will face extremely difficult choices about where to cut back already overstretched services.
ATSILS work is vital to the proper functioning of our court system. As ATSILS’ national body has said, in some areas of Australia, ATSILS are the only legal assistance service available. If funding is cut, the justice system in these areas will grind to a halt.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are already 15 times more likely to be in jail. Indigenous imprisonment rates are getting worse, increasing 52 percent over the past decade. 74 percent of Indigenous prisoners have been in jail before.
If Aboriginal people can’t access decent legal representation they are more likely to go to jail and for longer.
Aside from the rollback of stretched services, the cuts also misunderstand the vital preventative role of law reform and policy work by ATSILS.
This work is grounded in the experience of ATSILS clients. It helps Government to identify where laws or legal processes are not working and helps to improve the justice system.
ATSILS law reform and policy work is usually in response to requests from government and other bodies on issues that directly affect their clients, such as mental health policy, family violence, police conduct and incarceration of young people.
Given the unique problems facing many Indigenous communities, it is vital that the services working on the ground are able to share their experiences of how laws and processes are affecting their clients and where improvements are required.
In North Western Australia, for example, many Aboriginal drivers were being imprisoned for failing to have a valid driver’s license. Instead of simply representing client after client with the same problem, the Kimberley Community Legal Service and the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia encouraged the State Government to fund an innovative solution – a program that increased driver training and education in regional and remote communities to reduce traffic and license offences.
In the Northern Territory, the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency operates a successful prison “throughcare” program that is helping to cut reoffending by providing support before and after release from prison for issues like housing, mental health and alcohol abuse. Program staff see the problems that lack of identification causes for Aboriginal people leaving prison in accessing social security, a bank account or a driver’s licence. NAAJA is advocating for programs that help Aboriginal people to obtain basic ID to help get their lives back on track when they leave prison.
This is the kind of preventative, cost-saving legal work that governments should be encouraging, not cutting.
Tony Abbott said he would be a Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Attorney-General George Brandis has shown he understands the problems of access to justice in Australia. Cutting legal assistance for Aboriginal people doesn’t augur well for Government matching its words with actions. The cuts should be reconsidered.
Carolyn Bond AO is the national spokesperson for the Community Law Australia campaign www.communitylawaustralia.org.au