Funding cuts for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service providers in the Northern Territory.
Letter to Hon. George Brandis, Commonwealth Attorney-General:
The Law Society Northern Territory (the Society) is writing to outline its concerns around the significant funding cuts for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service providers in the Northern Territory.
The Territory faces unique challenges
The Northern Territory is in a unique situation having the highest proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people per head of population (26%). A high proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people come into contact with the justice system. This includes child welfare, public housing, mandatory alcohol treatment and criminal law. Further, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people endure disproportionate rates of incarceration (86%) and the Northern Territory has the highest incarceration rate at 821 per 100,000 of population.
The Society understands that the intention of the announced funding cut is not to reduce expenditure on front-line services of these agencies but to reduce expenditure on non-legal work, particularly policy and law reform advocacy. The Society is concerned that despite this stated intention these cuts will significantly reduce front-line legal assistance services.
The Society is concerned that the decision to cut funding was:
- based on a misunderstanding of funding mechanisms;
- not fully costed nor the impacts fully assessed;
- made without input from the providers or other agencies that will be impacted; and
- based on a false premise that policy and law reform is an expendable function of these agencies that costs more than it saves.
No separate funding for policy
The Society is concerned that these funding cuts will in fact significantly reduce frontline legal services. This concern is confirmed by the Commonwealth Attorney-General?s Department during recent estimates hearings stating that the funding of indigenous legal services cannot easily be separated between frontline services and policy activity.
The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) has confirmed that they do not receive separate funding for policy work and that the policy work that is done is done by font-line staff ?on the ground? working within the relevant law and policies.
Is policy work expendable?
The important role that legal assistance services play in the development of policy and law reform cannot be overvalued. These legal assistance services are called upon for comment by various organisations and government agencies to assist law and policy makers by bringing to bear their extensive knowledge and experience on the issues that directly affect their clients. This assistance is provided at no cost to the requesting agency. It is fallacious to suggest that Indigenous legal services do not have an important role to play in policy development or that they should not endeavour to seek reform of the systemic issues that entrench disadvantage for their clients through the generations. This work inevitably results in improvements to the law for the benefit of all Territorians and is much sought after across all levels of Government.
By way of example the policy contribution made by Indigenous legal services to raise awareness of the nature and causes of the crisis in indigenous imprisonment is invaluable. The cost of not addressing this issue is borne by all tax-payers.
In a media release of 26 July 2013 the Law Council of Australia President-elect, Mr Duncan McConnel, said
'It is appalling that 22 years after the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody?s final report was released, there have been no tangible reductions in Indigenous imprisonment rates within the justice system. ?In fact, imprisonment rates have risen: between 2000 and 2010, the Indigenous imprisonment rate increased by 51.5%'.
Strategies to address this worsening problem cannot be arrived at through the resources of government agencies alone and effective policy and legislative responses can only be enhanced by an in-depth multi-dimensional approach and efforts to understand the reasons for Indigenous incarceration. The unique perspective and experience of Indigenous legal services from the front line can without doubt only be of assistance in addressing the issue.
Impact on frontline services
NAAJA has advised the Society that due to the proposed funding cuts, it is unlikely to be able to continue the duty lawyer services provided in Darwin and Katherine. This will not only have a huge impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples but will see additional resources required from the Courts and place added burden on other Court users and the corrections system. The Society is concerned that any reduction in funding to agencies such as NAAJA will only place even greater pressure on Legal Aid bodies that are already struggling.
This foreshadowed funding cut will diminish the effective administration of justice and reduce access to justice for all Territorians. The Society calls on you to conduct a thorough analysis of the impact of any proposed funding cuts throughout the Territory?s legal system. The Society urges you to reconsider your position with respect to funding cuts to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services in the Territory.