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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26762

Senator O'Brien asked the Minister representing the Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads, upon notice, on 1 June 2004:

With reference to the findings in Chapter 14 (Women in Remote Communities: Norfolk Island - A Case Study) of Australian Law Reform Commission report no. 69, Part II, Equality before the law: women's equality (1994), which found that the situation was particularly bad for women at the time, with limited access to essential legal and support services:

(1) (a) What is the current situation in relation to violence against women on Norfolk Island; and (b) are there any statistics relating to this issue; if so, can these statistics be provided.

(2) (a) For each of the following financial years: 2000-01, 2001-02 and 2002-03, how much funding has the Commonwealth provided for the legal aid service on Norfolk Island; and (b) what is the projected expenditure on the legal aid service for the financial years 2003-04, 2004-05 and 2005-06.

(3) What reviews have been conducted by or for the Department of Transport and Regional Services, or any other government department, in relation to the adequacy of the legal aid service.

(4) Can a copy of the reports of any such review be provided; if not, why not.

(5) (a) Has the legal aid service ever identified any issues relating to violence against women that need to be addressed; if so, what are they; and (b) how has the Government addressed these issues.

Senator Ian Campbell (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —The Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads has provided the following answer to the honourable senator's question:

(1) (a) Under Schedule 2 of the Norfolk Island Act 1979, the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly has legislative and executive authority for “child, family and social welfare” issues. This means that the Norfolk Island Government has primary responsibility for developing and managing programmes to address domestic violence concerns within the Norfolk Island community.

Despite this, and as with the States and the other Self-Governing Territories, the Australian Government has a “national interest” in domestic violence issues. It is committed to preventing, reducing and responding to domestic and family violence and sexual assault through Partnerships Against Domestic Violence and the National Initiative to Combat Sexual Assault. These initiatives focus on gathering knowledge and finding better ways of preventing and addressing violence against women.

The Australian Government has recently launched its national campaign for the elimination of violence against women. The campaign provides practical help 24 hours a day for those experiencing violence, or who are at risk of violence, and advice and information for anyone concerned with this important issue. The Office of the Status of Women has taken action to ensure that the Norfolk Island community is able to access information and advice as part of that campaign.

Should anyone on Norfolk Island need legal aid services for domestic-violence related problems, funds are available.

(b) Any statistical information concerning reported violence against women on Norfolk Island would be held by the Norfolk Island Government. Such information would be based on reports from the Australian Federal Police (AFP), which provides policing services on Norfolk Island under a contract agreement between the AFP and the Norfolk Island Government.

(2) (a) The September 1995 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Norfolk Island and Australian Governments concerning the provision of legal aid provides that the Legal Aid Revenue Fund may accumulate up to $250,000. If it contains more than this amount at the beginning of a financial year, either party may waive its payment obligations. By 1 July 2000, the Fund was in excess of $250,000.

In 2000-2001 the Australian Government's contribution to the Legal Aid Revenue Fund was $15,000. In 2001-2002 the Department made an additional payment of $75,000 (Clause 9 of the MOU allows either party to make a unilateral payment at any time). This was intended to cover any demand for legal aid services as a result of possible criminal proceedings related to the murder of Janelle Patton in March 2002.

The balance of the Legal Aid Revenue Fund as at 31 December 2003 was $430,838. (The unaudited balance as at 30 June 2004 was $440,316.)

(b) Because of the level of accumulated funds (and as allowed under the MOU), the Department made no contribution in 2003-04 and has not allocated funding for 2004-05. Funding for 2005-06 will be dependent on the outcome of the current review of the Norfolk Island Legal Aid Scheme. Of course, if there is an urgent need for additional legal aid services and that need cannot be met from available funds, the Department can seek approval for a “one-off” payment.

(3) In February 2000 the Australian and Norfolk Island Governments agreed to review the operation of the Legal Aid Scheme in response to low usage numbers. The Chief Executive Officer of the ACT Legal Aid Commission, Mr Chris Staniforth, was commissioned to undertake the review.

Under the agreed terms of reference, the review was required to look at the appropriateness and effectiveness of the current arrangements, including administrative and operational procedures and requirements (such as the eligibility guidelines and criteria), the funding formula, reporting mechanisms, whether the MOU should be amended and so on. There was also a requirement to consider whether the scope of the legal aid scheme (and access to funding) should be expanded to include practical measures such as community education programmes, alternative dispute resolution methods (arbitration/mediation) etc.

The August 2000 review report was forwarded to the Norfolk Island Government in September 2000 for comment. In its 28 October 2003 response, the Norfolk Island Government emphasised that Norfolk Island “must be in control of the provision of legal aid and associated legal education to the people residing there”.

(4) Although not publicly available, the August 2000 review and the original October 1994 report on the options for developing a legal aid scheme were provided to the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories in July 2002. This was to inform its review of the Australian Government's involvement in Norfolk Island's Legal Aid Scheme. Copies of both reports have been provided to Senator O'Brien and are available from the Table Office.

(5) (a) The Staniforth Review pointed to “a deeply worrying lack of application [of the Legal Aid Scheme] to persons suffering family violence”. The review makes a number of recommendations designed to make the Scheme more accessible and to expand the services which may be funded by the Scheme (such as for community legal education, the introduction of a duty lawyer scheme to give priority to, among others, “persons seeking urgent relief in domestic violence situations”, access to an off-Island telephone service and so on).

(b) The Norfolk Island Government has provided its comments on the review's recommendations and drafted a revised MOU and amendments to the Legal Aid 1995 (NI) as part of the consultation process. The Australian Government's response to the review will take into account the Norfolk Island Government's proposed approach, Australian Government policy in relation to access to legal aid (itself under review) and the recommendations of the June 2004 report on legal aid by the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee. The Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories has also commented on the provision of legal aid services to Norfolk Island in the context of its July 2004 review of the Department's Annual Report.