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Wednesday, 16 March 2016
Page: 2112

Legal Aid

Senator LAZARUS (QueenslandLeader of the Glenn Lazarus Team) (14:28): My question is for Senator the Hon. George Brandis, representing the Minister for Justice. Last year, in my home state of Queensland we saw 80,000 people turned away from community legal centres and, concerningly, this is an upward trend. Nationwide more than 160,000 people were turned away. The top two specialist areas in which community legal centres provide advice are family law and family violence. In the last 12 months there was a staggering 56 per cent increase in domestic violence casework in Queensland alone. Today we have seen more than 80 family violence experts and community groups contact Mr Turnbull calling for funding increases to these vital services.

In this environment, why is the federal government cutting national funding to community legal centres by 30 per cent next year and ignoring the recommendations of the Productivity Commission for an immediate injection of $120 million per year?

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:29): Thank you, Senator Lazarus, for raising that issue. It is a very important issue indeed, and I have got some information that I can provide to you. We have recently commenced a new National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services. Under the terms of the national partnership agreement, legal aid funding will increase from $207.95 million in 2015-16, the first year of the agreement, to $219.941 million in 2019-20.

There has been some reallocation within the various funding envelopes between states and as between legal aid commission and community legal centres, so there are some legal aid commissions and some community legal centres who are getting more and some who are getting less. That is what happens when you negotiate a new agreement and you make adjustments.

If I may say so, with respect, Senator Lazarus, the right figure to look at is the overall total of the Commonwealth's investment which is, as I have said to you, will increase over the life of the national partnership agreement. Over the next five years, the Commonwealth's total commitment to legal aid commissions, community legal centres and Indigenous legal assistance services will total more than $1.6 billion.

Senator Lazarus, you asked about the issue of domestic violence. In the Women's Safety Package, which the Prime Minister announced last September, there is an additional $15 million for legal assistance services separate from the funding I have already mentioned that is provided under the national partnership agreement. That provides support for 12 new domestic violence units and four new health justice partnerships. (Time expired)

Senator LAZARUS (QueenslandLeader of the Glenn Lazarus Team) (14:31): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Only a small number of community legal centres received funding as part of the Women's Safety Package. In total they received $5 million per year over three years. Why would the government cut funding to community legal centres while, at the same time, supposedly support their work helping victims of family violence?

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:31): As I said to you, Senator Lazarus, in my answer to your primary question: there has been a reallocation of funding as between community legal centres and legal aid commissions, which are the two largest elements of the provision of legal assistance funded by the Commonwealth. But the aggregate Commonwealth investment of more than $1.6 billion is actually an increase, not a decrease. As I said in answer to your initial question, I think we should really look at the aggregate figure, because there are various avenues through which legal assistance services are provided.

In relation to the Women's Safety Package, there are, as I said, 12 new domestic violence units—this is all new money—and four health justice partnerships. I visited one in Adelaide when I was there for cabinet last week, which provides a whole-of-professional services service to people in the locality of Elizabeth. (Time expired)

Senator LAZARUS (QueenslandLeader of the Glenn Lazarus Team) (14:32): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. The looming funding cuts are causing significant uncertainty for community legal centres and their clients across Australia. Don't the people across Australia deserve the certainty of knowing that they will be able to get legal help in times of crisis from July 1 next year?

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:32): Well they do, they will and they are for the reasons I have already explained. Let me elaborate a little, because I am sure it will be of interest to you, Senator, what the health justice partnerships do. This is a new idea that is being pioneered in my department, recognising the fact that the first responders to domestic violence are more commonly doctors and clinicians than they are lawyers or social workers.

So what we are providing—and we are trialling this at four locations at the moment: in Elizabeth, inner Melbourne, Alice Springs and Greater Brisbane—is a service which provides an initial point of contact with health professionals who will communicate with legal professionals and social workers to provide a whole suite of necessary professional services where a person presents at a hospital or a GP surgery and a women is identified as being in need of assistance across the whole suite of professional services. Those are the new initiatives we are taking to address the very problem you have identified. Senator. (Time expired)