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Friday, June 18, 2021
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Free legal service for disadvantaged Canberrans seeks government support

Canberra Community Law (CCL) has provided free legal services to poor and disadvantaged Canberrans for almost 35 years – but the community legal centre now seeks $550,000 from the ACT Government to survive.

Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee moved in Wednesday’s Legislative Assembly session that the ACT Government should provide funding certainty for CCL within the next week.

The CCL is Canberra’s only free specialist law service in public housing, Centrelink, and race and disability discrimination. Without urgent funding certainty from the ACT Government, Ms Lee argued, CCL would need to cut staff, and to reduce its service capacity by 20%. Around 170 of Canberra’s most vulnerable people would go without the legal services they needed.

“My motion comes after months of pleas from the sector to provide certainty,” Ms Lee said. “They will not be able to survive and provide the vital services that they do without that certainty.”

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Short-term funding from the Commonwealth to help CCL will end this month, on 30 June. “While this funding comes to an end, the strain on government services remains high, and need for community legal assistance continues at an increased level,” Ms Lee said.

Demand for services had increased since the pandemic due to job losses, stress, and heightened family violence. Client numbers have increased 10%, and legal advice by 25%, while CCL has engaged two full-time lawyers, working pro bono, who are struggling to keep up with demand.

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said he was aware of funding pressures CCL and other community legal centres faced. However, the government could not support Ms Lee’s amendment as it stood. The August Budget would provide the funding certainty Ms Lee requested, but the Budget cabinet could not provide an answer within a week.

“We are working to get this done as soon as possible,” Mr Rattenbury said, “but I can’t stand here and guarantee this Assembly that the cabinet process will have this resolved in the next seven days.”

However, Ms Lee protested that Mr Rattenbury’s amendment – which removed any reference to the ACT Government “providing any certainty, any reassurance, any support” to the sector – was “heartless and cruel”.

Mr Rattenbury’s amendment also called on the Federal Government to recommit support for the ACT’s legal assistance sector. The Commonwealth had “passed the buck” to the ACT Government, Mr Rattenbury said; in failing to provide any money in the Budget, the Commonwealth had left a “gaping hole” Ms Lee now called on the ACT Government to fill.

“The pandemic is not over,” Mr Rattenbury said. “Though it is less intense, its effects persist. People continue to need this support, and the Commonwealth has failed to listen.”

But Ms Lee claimed that the Greens had hijacked the spirit, wording, and intent of her motion. “The Attorney-General is very quick to jump to criticism of the Federal Government when it comes to funding – and yet he and his government cannot even provide any certainty of ongoing ACT funding in the last hour.”

Moreover, Ms Lee said, many of the CCL’s clients were the Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders the Labor-Green government had failed. Under their watch, the ACT had the highest Indigenous incarceration rate in the country, 20 times more than for the general population.

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