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State won't help Aboriginal Legal Service

David Weber reported this story on Friday, July 17, 2009 12:50:00

PETER CAVE: Western Australia's Attorney General says the state won't provide funding for the
Aboriginal Legal Service despite its threat to withdraw lawyers from the courts.

The Legal Service says its workload is too high for it to provide a proper service, with some
lawyers handling more than 50 clients a day.

By some measures, Western Australia has the highest incarceration rate of Indigenous people in the
nation.

But the state's Attorney-General says that Aboriginal Legal Services have always been funded by the
Commonwealth.

He says that while he may support a push for more federal funding, the state is unlikely to provide
financial help.

David Weber reports.

DAVID WEBER: The Aboriginal Legal Service says the threat to withdraw lawyers from the courts
should be taken seriously.

The chief executive Dennis Eggington made the comment on The World Today yesterday.

DENNIS EGGINGTON: I think that we're gonna have no alternative at the end of this particular
contract with the Commonwealth Government if we aren't able to get any extra funding. Now I say
that Peter because currently we're funded under contract for 25 lawyers in this state and we've
currently got 37 employed and most of those or the extras are only employed up until the end of
June 2011. So if we take the figures we would have a dozen or more lawyers out of the system and
that would really cause problems about servicing the current courts we do.

DAVID WEBER: The state's Attorney-General says the WA Government has not provided funding to the
service in the past, and it's not likely to do so in the future.

Christian Porter says he would support a push for more federal funding.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Whilst the states administer the criminal law, it has always been the case that
the ALS has a federally-funded body and we would give every support to ALS based on what data they
have at the moment with respect to increased service delivery during times of economic downturn to
lobby the Federal Government for more money.

DAVID WEBER: Are you concerned at all about the threat that lawyers might be withdrawn from courts
and people won't have that representation?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I must say that I have only seen a transcript of what Mr Eggington has said
on radio but simply there being increasing levels of work, which I don't doubt there are and which
occur in times of recession for all criminal service providers, that seems to me not necessarily to
be the justification for pulling services out of court.

I mean the Commonwealth Government funds legal aid to provide court services and I think that that
sort of potentiality seems an unusual one for me but I think that is one that the Commonwealth
Government would need to be queried with respect to.

DAVID WEBER: Would the State Government then consider an application from the ALS for some kind of
funding because you said that there hasn't been an application or you are not aware of one anyway?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, there hasn't been a formal budgetary application. Certainly not before the
last state budget but I'll have a conversation with Mr Eggington but again it would be
extraordinary across the practice in all the states and territories if the West Australian State
Government determined to spend money to pick up the slack where the Federal Government may be
underfunding.

DAVID WEBER: Although WA does have an extraordinarily high level of Aboriginal incarceration so
perhaps it is appropriate?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, we have under Labor had an increasing proportion of Aboriginal
incarceration which as I say has dropped in the early days of the Liberal/National Government.

We also have a higher Indigenous population than many of the other states but yes, we do have a
high level of Indigenous incarceration which is something that we are working to decrease but again
that would seem to me to be justification for the Federal Government to provide proportionately
more funding to states with greater Indigenous populations as a percentage rather than a matter for
the states, whether it be us or territories like the Northern Territory, to make up for a lack of
federal funding.

DAVID WEBER: Although the state is doing relatively well in terms of its budget and its future
outcomes so shouldn't WA be able to pay for this itself?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I don't know what you are measuring our state doing well. We are certainly
one of the few states that has been able to return a budget surplus but nevertheless, our state
budget is under greater stress than it has been since, for many years, because we are suffering the
greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression so our state is under, state budget is under
immense pressure.

PETER CAVE: Western Australia's Attorney-General Christian Porter speaking to David Weber.