Extra $21m to keep Indigenous legal services operating

·2-min read
Flavio Brancaleone/AAP PHOTOS

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has announced an extra $21 million additional funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services.

Before the Budget earlier this month, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services chair Karly Warner, who is also the chief executive of Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT), called for an injection of $250 million in emergency federal funding.

On Monday, Ms Warner told the ABC that ALS NSW/ACT had been forced to freeze criminal law services at 13 courts. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service Queensland had already implemented suspensions including at Atherton, Innisfail, Mareeba and Tully.

On Friday, Mr Dreyfus said the government will provide $21 million in one-off additional funding to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, for distribution to Indigenous legal services in every state and territory.

Ms Warner welcomed the funds but said it wasn't enough.

"It's a really good start and will help us keep the lights on over the next 12 months," she said.

"We fully expect service freezes to continue and that means bad outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians including unjust incarceration and separated families.

"This increase in funding will mean different things for different services around the country.

"It's a welcome breather but ultimately is nowhere near enough to reverse the increasing freezes that are crippling our capacity to achieve justice for our clients."

Ms Warner said demand for Indigenous legal services had doubled since 2018 but core funding from the Commonwealth has declined in real terms.

"Service freezes will have dire consequences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who need our services to have any chance of equal access to justice," she said.

"Service freezes risk disastrous outcomes including increased family violence and child removal, unjust incarceration and deaths in custody.

"The difficult decision to freeze services will be devastating for our organisations because it means real people who deserve culturally appropriate legal representation are turned away and suffer unnecessarily through the justice system."

Mr Dreyfus said the $21 million was in addition to the $440 million provided by the government to Indigenous legal services over five years under the National Legal Assistance Partnership.

The attorney-general said the money builds on the "record $99 million First Nations Justice Package" he announced with Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney in October.