Government backflip ‘late in the piece’ as uncertainty forces community centres to let lawyers go

Community legal centres say they have already had to let lawyers go in anticipation of budget cuts now reversed by the Turnbull Government.

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Attorney-General George Brandis today announced a funding boost of $55.7 million over the next three years, overriding and going beyond a planned $35 million cut over the same period.

“It is very welcome, but it’s certainly late in the piece,” the president of the Law Council of Australia, Fiona McLeod, said.

“Some of them would already have been putting in place plans to lay people off.”

Those planned lay-offs have “already happened” in South Australia, according to the head of that state’s Council of Community Legal Centres, Catherine McMorrine.

“We’ve had staff leave and we haven’t replaced them,” Ms McMorrine told SBS News.

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Ms McMorrine also works at the Southern Community Justice Centre, which provides free legal advice to disadvantaged people in the southern regions of Adelaide.

One lawyer who left the centre earlier this year was not replaced amid budget uncertainty, she said.

At another South Australian community firm, every full-time lawyer has been moved to a part-time roster.

The managing lawyer of the Central Community Legal Service in Adelaide, David Ferraro, said the reduction in staff hours was due to two successive years of budget cuts.

“[Today’s announcement] is some good news, but we’re still a bit apprehensive,” he said.

Senator Brandis said the government was announcing the measures ahead of the May 9 Budget to give the centres time to adjust.

“We want to send a clear signal about where the Government’s priorities lie,” he said.

Watch: Brandis announces funding for CLCs

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“One of the most important features of this announcement is that this additional funding is built into the architecture of the national partnership agreement. It is not a one off terminating program.”

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But the federal opposition criticised the government for creating an atmosphere of uncertainty in the sector.

“The uncertainty faced by the centres in recent months and years has been incredibly damaging, with many already losing experienced staff and unable to plan for the future,” Labor’s shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said.

The uncertainty is amplified for centres in South Australia, which are still waiting on their state government to decide which firms will be allocated money for the new financial year through a competitive tendering process.

A review of the South Australian sector, commissioned by the SA Government and conducted by Earnst and Young, recommended the number of ‘generalist’ community legal centres in the state be reduced to three or four, compared with the current six, in response to the federal budget cuts.

The uncertainty has also taken a toll on the hiring practices of the Redfern Legal Centre in Sydney, according to its acting CEO Jacqui Swinburne. 

“For a few positions, we haven’t been able to offer permanent positions for a couple of years now,” Ms Swinburne said.

Watch: Redfern Legal Centre on the funding challenges

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“It’s very difficult for us to plan proper services to meet the needs of our community when we don’t know what money we will or won’t have.

“You don’t want to raise expectations or even start services that aren’t going to continue a few months later.”

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