Four communities in Queensland have had their Aboriginal legal services frozen and more than a dozen communities in New South Wales are at risk of losing theirs, prompting calls for urgent funding from the commonwealth government to help First Nations clients.
Karly Warner, the chair of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services national peak body NATSILS, said communities are now at risk of not being able to access culturally safe legal services and lead to a worsening crisis of Indigenous incarceration.
“There is no point sugar-coating this situation – it could result in far worse outcomes for people and families,” said Warner, who is also the chief executive of Aboriginal Legal Services in New South Wales and ACT.
“We know that when culturally safe legal support isn’t available, the result is more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody, more families torn apart, more violence, more intergenerational trauma.
“It will not be culturally safe and it may not be the support they need. Others will face lengthy delays or other poor outcomes.”
The peak body for Aboriginal-led legal services is requesting an “urgent” emergency support package of $250m from the federal government to ensure that it can keep its doors open in 13 communities in NSW. Many areas with high Indigenous populations are at imminent risk of losing the service, the body said.
“ATSILS puts up fewer barriers to free legal help than other providers. If we are not available, our clients may not be able to access free legal help from other providers,” said Warner.
In NSW the areas which will be without Aboriginal Legal Service’s criminal law representation, including for young people, from 15 May unless funding is confirmed including Bryon Bay, Eden, Forster, Junee, Lithgow, Moss Vale, Muswellbrook, Scone, Singleton, Temora, Tenterfield, West Wyalong and Wauchope.
Warner said that the funding shortfall will mean service providers will be unable to act for any new clients facing criminal charges in local courts from 15 May.
“We are really concerned for these communities. While we are doing our best to minimize the pain for our clients and communities, there is no doubt that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will suffer through the justice system when there is no access to culturally safe legal services,” she said.
In Queensland, four communities have frozen their services until at least June 30 starting this week.
Aboriginal legal services have confirmed that they intend to carry out legal representation for pre-existing clients or help transfer clients to other service providers.
A spokesperson for the federal attorney general did not confirm whether it would provide additional funding, but acknowledged the important role Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services have in providing culturally safe services.
It said the Albanese government has provided $99m in funding First Nations justice packages, including $13m in additional funding to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and $1m to NATSILS.
The federal government said an independent review is looking at funding levels and the current and future capacity of the legal assistance sector.
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