The federal government is showing no signs that it will step in to prevent the CLC Funding Cliff. If it does not step in then it will be up to the states or perhaps another organisation to come to the rescue.

Attorney-General George Brandis said:

“First, to date, there have been no cuts to payments to Community Legal Centres by the Commonwealth Government. It has been claimed by some that the Government is withdrawing $6.8 million annually. That claim is misleading.

“That money, to which the [Queensland] state Attorney also referred, was money provided for under a four year program, announced by the previous federal government in the 2013 budget, which was deliberately designed to terminate on 30 June 2017. When that program terminates that money will no longer be available. This is what is being called by some – the “Dreyfus funding cliff”.

“In spite of those, and other claims, the reality of competing funding priorities and the necessity for budget repair across Government should not obscure the significant support that the Commonwealth provides and to which we are committed to continue to provide.

“The facts speak for themselves.

“From 1 July 2015 and across the forward estimates, the Federal Government is providing $1.6 billion for legal assistance services. The largest component of that is $1.2 billion for Legal Aid Commissions and Community Legal Centres through the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services, agreed to by all of the states and territories as a grand bargain to place on a sure footing and give certainty to the sector over the subsequent five years.

“As well, with the aggregate funding envelope of $1.6 billion, the Commonwealth is providing an additional $45 million for frontline legal assistance services through the Women’s Safety Package and the Third Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.

“In Queensland, the Commonwealth contributes nearly half of the total funding for legal assistance services for the year 2016-17. And over the past seven years in Queensland, the Commonwealth’s contribution to funding Community Legal Centres has almost doubled from $4.5 million in 2010-11 to $9.5 million this year. As well, the Commonwealth will provide $3.8 million in new funding over four years to community legal centres across Queensland.

“However, as I have noted already, support for CLCs is not a matter for the Commonwealth alone. It requires the state and territory governments in each jurisdiction to pull their weight, both in terms of funding and, crucially, in terms of service delivery. That is why the National Partnership Agreement, to which I referred a moment ago, has been such a landmark achievement. It represents an agreed commitment from the Federal Government and the state and territory governments to combine our resources to provide the most effective support for legal assistance services.”

Earlier, Law Council of Australia President, Fiona McLeod SC, told the sixth National Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference in Adelaide that although the crisis in legal assistance funding had been getting steadily worse over two decades, drastic cuts to take effect from 1 July this year will be particularly disastrous.

“Scheduled funding cuts to Community Legal Centres (CLCs) will amount to a loss of $35 million between 2017 and 2020 – that’s a 30 per cent cut to Commonwealth funding for services that are already chronically under-resourced,” she said.

“Last year CLCs were forced to turn away 160,000 people seeking legal assistance. These cuts will lead to 36,000 fewer clients assisted, and 46,000 fewer advices provided.

“We are talking here about real people, with real problems. People who thought their situation was serious enough to seek legal assistance. People who would not have had other viable options for legal advice.

“How many of those turned away now have exacerbated problems? How have those problems spread within their families, their social networks, their communities?

“The Productivity Commission has called for an extra $200 million for legal assistance, because research shows these problems cost the economy long-term. Legal problems are a lot like medical problems – without prompt attention they tend to get much worse.

”The Government needs to listen to the experts and reverse these catastrophic cuts.”