National Association of Community Legal Centres Conference closing address

27 August 2015

Melbourne, Victoria

I begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and to all Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

I say that this morning not as a respectful formula but because, as Michael mentioned in passing, I’ve just come from the Torres Strait where I’ve spent three days, with the Prime Minister and many members of the Cabinet, speaking to those communities. And while you, Michael, and the delegates here assembled have spent the last three days hearing stories from the vulnerable people who need service, I’ve spent the last three days hearing stories as well from that particular community, that particular Indigenous community, and have become even more acutely aware of their needs.

There are vulnerable Australians across the length and breadth of this country and one of the respects in which they are vulnerable is their interaction with the legal system, and I’ll say something more about that in my scripted remarks.

But I want to begin by acknowledging the criticality of the work each of you do in assisting vulnerable Australians at what is very often their moment of greatest vulnerability. And when they interact or interface with a system that, for most of them indeed, is difficult to comprehend it seems almost impossibly daunting to deal with. 

The work of the community legal centres is at the heart of Australia’s aspiration to be a fair society. And I know that all of you in this room provide the professional services to those vulnerable people that you do, not merely because, like all of us, you get professional satisfaction from practicing your profession but also because it is important to you to devote those professional skills to helping people who most need that help. I’ve said it before when I’ve addressed this conference in years past, and I want to say it again on the first occasion on which I address this conference as the Attorney-General, how much respect I have for all the participants in this sector for the work they do and for the commitment that they bring, in wishing to put their professional skills, knowledge and training, at the service of people who need it most.

Australia is very fortunate to have an active, vibrant and dedicated community legal sector. The community legal sector has, as you know, a long and proud history in Australia.

The first such centre — the Fitzroy Legal Centre — was established, in this city, over 40 years ago to respond to the need for affordable legal services for the community.

Today, following in the heels of the Fitzroy Legal Centre, and other pioneering legal centres including the Caxton Legal Centre in my own city, there are approximately 200 community legal services operating across the country.

The success of the community legal sector is the result of the enduring dedication and the expertise of both staff and volunteers at those centres. You understand the communities and the problems that they are facing and that understanding enables those centres to offer targeted solutions to legal problems and to respond flexibly to the changing needs of those communities.

Now, Michael, in your catalogue of good and bad news, your very balanced catalogue of good and bad news, you quite rightly emphasised, among the column of good news, the inclusion of the community legal sector in the new National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services which began operation on the 1st of July.

The Government’s decision to include community legal centres for the first time within the National Partnership Agreement in an integrated manner was indeed an important policy choice and I’m glad to hear it acknowledged that it was a good and an important decision.

The Agreement delivers to legal aid commissions and community legal centres collectively $1.3 billion of Commonwealth funding over five years. The Agreement was developed following extensive consultation over 18 months, including with many of the people in the room today and I want to thank them for their contribution to that long discussion.

The objective of the Agreement is to support a national legal assistance sector that is innovative, integrated and best able to respond to the legal needs of vulnerable Australians.

It aims to do that by focusing on improving access to justice for disadvantaged people, and by maximising service delivery in a targeted way within available resources.

In your catalogue of good and bad news, Michael, you mentioned the decision I made about advocacy. Let me address that. I don’t expect everyone in the room to agree with me but I did make a decision, very early in my tenure as Attorney-General, that given that the demands and claims on the system from vulnerable Australians exceeded the available resources and was likely to do so well into the future, as a matter of priority, I wanted to see all of the money devoted to the needs of clients not causes. From a social justice point of view I do not, for a moment, regret that decision to put clients first, to put the needs of the most vulnerable first.

The Agreement recognises the joint responsibilities of state, territory and the Commonwealth government to provide legal assistance.

Importantly, it sets up an innovative framework for states and territories, as the level of government closest to the people using the services, to make evidence based decisions about where government funding is directed and how services are delivered.

The 1st of July also marked the commencement of the revised Indigenous Legal Assistance Programme. Under that programme, the Australian Government is providing more than $350 million directly to Indigenous legal assistance services over the next five years and that, as I’m sure you know, covers legal services arising under state law as well as Commonwealth law.

Both the National Partnership Agreement and the new Indigenous Programme deliver complementary reform to the legal assistance sector— marking an important new chapter in the story of government legal assistance funding.

There are five key benchmarks that underpin these new arrangements: targeting services to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged; providing appropriate and proportionate services; improving collaboration between legal assistance providers and the organisations and governments that support them; encouraging timely and prompt intervention, and empowering individuals, and building resilience in communities.

I want to talk this afternoon, in particular, how these benchmarks will be delivered, with respect to initiatives that assist people experiencing family violence.

As Michael you were good enough to acknowledge, the Federal Government is deeply concerned about family violence and its effect on society at large and the victims in particular. Our position has always been, and always will be, one of zero tolerance for violence against women and children.

A person experiencing family violence may not recognise that they have a legal problem, they might not characterise it as a legal problem, or seek assistance from legal professionals. I am aware of many examples of innovation by community legal centres, often in partnership with other legal and non-legal service providers, which are characterised by a holistic approach to address these barriers to access to justice.

Let me give you some examples, many of them are about people in this room.

The Women’s Legal Service Victoria’s Link Virtual Outreach programme brings together lawyers and social workers to provide legal assistance to vulnerable women experiencing family violence by internet video conferencing. Evaluations have demonstrated that this programme is reaching vulnerable women effectively and empowering them to understand their rights and their options.

Similarly, the Health-Justice Partnership—Acting on the Warning Signs—between Inner Melbourne Community Legal and the Royal Women’s Hospital is another example of a program breaking down the barriers to justice faced by many women experiencing violence at home. This project integrates legal assistance and community legal education into the hospital clinical setting to help women identify legal problems and to provide timely intervention. This is done through the provision of training to health professionals and the co-location of legal assistance at hospitals.

There are also many examples of reaching a large proportion of target communities effectively through technology. Women’s Legal Service Queensland has a resource called Re-Focus, for women who have separated or are thinking of separating from their partners. Re-Focus provides legal information, tips and much-needed referrals that are directly relevant to each user.

Of course, technology is not always the answer and very often it is an inadequate response, but at least, in the foreseeable future, face-to-face services will continue to be essential for people navigating complex family law and court systems. It does mean that scarce resources in the sector will be more readily available for those who need it most urgently, by virtue of those advances in technology and others like them.

The new funding arrangements focus the most intensive services on people experiencing financial disadvantage. To maximise the availability of legal assistance to people experiencing family violence, the National Partnership Agreement gives community legal centres flexibility to determine a person’s level of financial disadvantage not only by their income levels, but also by their personal circumstances, including non-financial metrics. This means that someone fleeing a violent relationship can seek the assistance of a community legal centre, regardless of personal or household income, in accordance with the community legal centres assessment of their actual need.

The National Partnership Agreement is not the only way in which the Government is helping the victims of family violence.

In January this year, the Prime Minister announced that the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) will prioritise the issue of violence against women. And at a COAG meeting since, that issue, as you know, has been the subject of discussion at the top of the agenda. That includes implementing a national Domestic Violence Order scheme, increasing online safety and implementing national perpetrator standards.

The Prime Minister has also established an Advisory Panel on violence against women, chaired by former Victorian Police Commissioner, Ken Lay. It is co-chaired by the 2015 Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, and Ms Heather Nancarrow, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety. The need for, and value of, legal assistance services will be an important feature of that panel’s discussions and will be one of the considerations when it forms its final recommendations.

Let me address the criticism that we have heard about the supposed decrease in funding for community legal centres in the 2017-18 financial year. Much of that criticism was founded on a misconception. There are two reasons for the change in funding levels.

The first is that in 2013, the former Labor Government provided a four year, one off transfer of funding to community legal centres. That ends — and was always intended and understood to end — on the 30th of June 2017. The sector and the states had been aware of this at the time the announcement was made in 2013.

The second is the delayed impact of the 2013 budget cut. I was recently able, as you were good enough to mention Michael, to persuade the Prime Minister to reinstate $25.5 million of this money, over two years, to provide greater certainty to the sector. The community legal sector is the beneficiary of $12.0 million, or about half, of that $25.5 million of economies announced at the end of 2013 but as a result of representations by myself, and Senator Cash, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Women it will not now proceed.

That does leave a $6 million reduction, in the final years of the Agreement; however that needs to be put into perspective. Of the $1.3 billion provided over the next five years through the Agreement, $6 million represents about 1.5 per cent of total funding.

The Government wants to ensure that the sector remains sustainable and that taxpayer funding is managed efficiently. The introduction of collaborative service planning is a key innovation to ensure this.

Service planning encourages governments and service providers to ask the important questions: who needs services; where are they most needed; how are they best delivered. In this way, we can avoid a siloed approach to service delivery and maximise and concentrate where it is most needed, the available government funding. While I acknowledge that this may take a little time to be fully understood, and Michael you mentioned that again in your catalogue of good and bad views, with the support of the various levels of government, and with the support of the sector, it will become invaluable for the future delivery of services and for the future viability of the sector as a whole.

As society is rapidly changing, legislators and the courts have had to work to keep pace with changing social norms and community expectations.

Issues such as family violence, as well as other social issues such as gambling, mental illness and substance abuse, are imposing additional challenges and burdens on an already strained system.

Evolving demographic and social realities have meant the quantum and character of matters brought to community legal centres, other legal assistance providers and ultimately to the courts has also changed. These increasingly complicated problems are posing a greater impost on finite resources and, if that is left unchecked, would pose an even greater challenge in the administration of justice.

Providing certainty, as we have done through the National Partnership Agreement over the next five years, and access to justice for disadvantaged people is more than a story for one level of government and it’s more than just a story about funding. It’s a story which is complicated and in which many people are enduring great hardship but which we are determined to address, as well as we can, and as we have done to provide as much certainty as we can.

It is the job of service providers and government to cooperate with one another to tell a better story for those most vulnerable members of our community—a story of innovation and co-operation, and hope, to address some of society’s most acute problems at the point in which they impact on societies most vulnerable individuals.

It is a partnership between you and government. It is a partnership in which we both have our role to play and for the important role that you play I wish to thank you.

Thank you.