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Tuesday, 3 June 2003
Page: 15835

Mr JENKINS (9:00 PM) —Access to justice is a basic human right. To achieve this requires an understanding of the law and the legal process and therefore depends on access to appropriate legal services. To this end, I welcome tonight the decision by Victoria Legal Aid to earmark $175,000 a year to establish a new community legal centre in the city of Whittlesea. This centre has been described as a three-worker community legal service. This decision was made possible by the injection of some $14 million over four years from Victoria's state budget to increase funding for Victoria Legal Aid. I congratulate Attorney-General Rob Hulls and his parliamentary secretary, Jenny Mikakos, for earmarking $350,000 of Victoria Legal Aid funding to increase community legal services throughout Victoria.

This is in contrast to the way in which the Commonwealth sees its role in the provision of community legal services. Long ago, this government wiped its hands of responsibility in this area. If we look at the history of the way in which the Commonwealth government has involved itself in matters to do with legal aid and community legal services, we see that back in the Whitlam years the government put in place the Australian Legal Aid Office, which enabled the fragmented state and territory systems to come together and therefore have a national approach. Regrettably, subsequent coalition governments have torn this apart, to the extent that we now see this present government having, as I said, abrogated any responsibility for community legal services. In fact, the Commonwealth Attorney-General had as an aim to either merge or close the community legal centres. This would no doubt have led to a reduction in people's access to community legal services.

Community legal centres play a very important role in that they provide legal responses that reflect the needs of the communities in which they exist. If you look at the city of Whittlesea, you see that many of the people living within that municipality are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Two-thirds of the people who have been using the limited legal services that have been available in the past have been from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Over half the people who have used the legal service are women, and many of them are young people or retirees. Because of this injection of funding and the new legal service in the city of Whittlesea, Broadmeadows Legal Service—which previously provided an outreach service to Whittlesea—will now be able to establish services in the satellite city of Sunbury.

This is a very important decision by the state government, and I wish to give credit to the state government for their commitment to not only community legal services but also legal aid in general. The importance of being able to give communities access to legal services that are relevant cannot be overemphasised. I envisage that the community groups that have come together to wage this campaign—which has been successful because of the good offices of the state government—will continue to wish to be involved in consultations with Victoria Legal Aid to ensure that the service that is provided meets the needs of the community which will be served by this legal service.

One of the most important aspects of community legal centres has been their involvement in legal education. They are best able to cater for the type of education and exposure to legal rights that a community requires. The community legal centre will also be able to look at ways in which it can bridge the gap with the various ethnic communities that are represented in the population of the city of Whittlesea and ensure that they have access to relevant legal services.

This has been a long local campaign. I deeply regret that the Commonwealth government has not been able to see its way clear to be involved in establishing this service. The state government is to be applauded, and the community is to be applauded for its perseverance in ensuring that this service is established. The most important aspect of this is that community legal centres address the needs of those who are most disadvantaged and who have to go the hardest yards to try to get proper legal services. This new centre will address that need in the city of Whittlesea. (Time expired)