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Tuesday, 8 November 2016
Page: 2221

Senator KETTER (Queensland) (19:37): Tonight I rise to support the campaign being run by the National Association of Community Legal Centres to fund equal justice in Australia.

As has been pointed out by the NACLC, there is a crisis in legal assistance in this country. I am indebted to Ms Louise Skidmore, who is the Principal Solicitor of Pine Rivers Community Legal Centre, for raising this issue with me and for coming to my electorate office a few months ago to talk to me about the impact in my local area of the funding cliff which community legal centres are going to experience from 1 July next year as a result of the heartless action of this government.

Ms Skidmore pointed out to me that in our local area there is currently an unmet need by the most vulnerable members of our community, for whom it is essential to access legal advice early on. We have heard, and we understand, that Queensland's community legal centres turn away over 58,000 people. The top three reasons why people access community legal centres are for domestic or family violence, homelessness and family law issues. Over 15 per cent of people coming to a centre are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent, and more than a quarter of the people attending community legal centres advise that they have a disability.

Each day in my area of Pine Rivers we know that seven Pine Rivers residents are reaching out for free legal help, but only three receive the help that they need. The other four are often returning to violent homes and facing possible homelessness or family law issues. Ms Skidmore raised this issue with me, and as a result of that and the assistance of Mr Dreyfus, the shadow Attorney-General, we convened a meeting of community legal centres in Queensland to raise awareness of this issue and to support the campaign of the National Association of Community Legal Centres.

I am very pleased that I was able to spend some time in Queensland dealing with this issue and raising the plight of community legal centres in local media outlets. I thank Giselle Negri in Cairns for taking me through some of the very disturbing statistics in relation to the Cairns Community Legal Centre. In 2015-16, that centre turned away from its door 1,185 people who were seeking assistance. In Rockhampton I am indebted to Flora Wellington, the senior legal officer, for taking me through some of the concerns that they have. The CLC in Rockhampton is a great facility and provide great assistance to people in the Gladstone area, as well. They also have started to turn away clients due to their not being able to afford to have more solicitors. I went also to Maroochydore, where I spoke with Julian Porter of the Sunshine Coast community legal centre, who runs an amazing centre with about a hundred volunteers providing an incredible service to the Sunshine Coast area. What I heard in each of the community legal centres is that if we experience the funding cliff which is before us in each of these places there is likely to be a loss of legal staff in those centres, which will be diminution of the already stretched services which are trying to meet the needs of people in the area.

We know that, in relation to access to justice, funding community legal centres is the right thing to do. Some people would be surprised to know that the Productivity Commission has come out very strongly in support of the work of community legal centres. It says that assistance from CLCs can prevent or reduce the escalation of legal problems, which in turn can mean reduced costs for the justice system and lower costs to other taxpayer funded services in areas such as health, housing and social security payments. This is an area where the government needs to review what it is doing.

The savage cuts facing our community legal centres are entirely the fault of the Abbott-Turnbull government. The idea that we can remove funding from community legal centres and still have them operate is a fallacy. We cannot afford to have such an important frontline service close. Our legal system is complex, but we need to fund it. We must fund equal justice.