‘Tokenistic’ funding not enough to support ‘overwhelming’ legal service demand

Eastern Community Legal Centre CEO Michael Smith was left disappointed by the Federal Budget for 2024-25. Picture: ON FILE.

By Mikayla van Loon

The handing down of the Federal Budget came with a wave of disappointment for community legal centres with only a fraction of the required funding to stay afloat allocated.

A total of $44.1 million was budgeted for legal assistance services in 2024-25, which includes community legal centres (CLCs), Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (FVPLSs), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILSs), and Legal Aid Commissions (LACs), with no forward estimates of potential funding beyond June 2025 indicated.

Eastern Community Legal Centre (ECLC) chief executive officer Michael Smith said with a “couple of crises going on” the funding appeared “tokenistic”.

“The figures we’ve seen say that there’s only about $9 million for community legal centres and most of that’s just to support wage increases, so it’s not going to help us really expand services and meet the crushing demand that we’re facing every day,” he said.

“There’s a crisis and just demand for legal help generally because we’re turning away hundreds of people a year in need of legal help, and particularly in the area of family violence.

“We are having so many women and children in particular that we’re not able to help because we just haven’t got the capacity.”

Despite the National Legal Assistance Partnership review, which was completed in March, hinting at chronic underfunding in the sector and Community Legal Centres Australia (CLCA) requesting $125 million in this year’s budget, neither were acted on.

CLCA chief executive officer Tim Leach said the budget was a failure and sent a message that CLCs across the country should start to wind down services.

“The government’s failure to deliver sufficient legal assistance funding or long-term funding security in [the] budget means people and communities across Australia face the very real risk that free legal services they rely on will not be available in the near future,” he said.

“The $9.3 million bump for community legal centres is welcome and will go some way towards keeping some lights on in some centres.

“However, we have been very clear over recent months that our sector needed an extra $125m for 2024-25. We have over 150 centres, so [the] boost is about $60,000 per centre. This may help some centres limp on, but that’s about it.”

Mr Smith said the uncertainty and insecurity of not knowing what June 2025 and beyond looks like was “concerning” for staff, the community and CLCs.

“Maybe the Federal Government has a long term plan to do something bigger and bolder. We were really hoping for that ongoing commitment in the forward estimates but at the moment, we’re left with a government saying ‘trust me it’ll be OK’. So that leaves people hanging and nervous.”

Last year, Mr Smith said ECLC had to “reduce some services and reduce some staffing positions because of the lack of funding from the State and Federal Government” with the risk of that happening again without sufficient funding.

Increasingly, Mr Smith said CLCs are a key pillar of the family, domestic and gender-based violence response and support system.

Off the back of the State budget, which also left a gaping hole in funding, Mr Smith said particularly at a time when there is a “national crisis” of gendered violence, despite the Commonwealth’s announcements and headway being made after Victoria’s Royal Commission, “we are concerned that legal support is sometimes overlooked in that family violence response”.

More broadly Mr Smith said the announcements following the national cabinet meeting on gender-based violence earlier this month were rather narrow focused.

“The announcements by the Prime Minister recently around the family violence funding, it’s a significant amount of money but it’s really around one particular program.

“We have a national plan to address family violence in Australia and that really talks about working right across the continuum. So it talks about primary prevention, it talks about early intervention, it talks about response services.

“[The program] doesn’t really look at our strategic approach right across the board. We hope that the announcement after the national cabinet on family violence was just the first step and there’s a lot more steps the Federal Government needs to lead and provide resources for.”

While the Federal Government’s contribution of $6.3 million to reduce the pay disparity within CLCs was welcomed by Mr Smith “because historically, the Commonwealth Government has not provided that kind of support”, the urgency of service funding outweighed the positive impact.

“We want to keep reminding both governments that the situation is urgent, it can’t always be put off to another day. Every day we don’t have the supports we need is another day we’re concerned about women and children at risk of family violence,” he said.

“But also there are lots of other people in the community who need help with their legal problems in a timely way, they grow and become worse and become more expensive for the community, more expensive for the client and more expensive for the government.”