Can Whitlam’s legal aid legacy survive a funding shake-up?

Do Aboriginal legal services fit into a reformed Commonwealth? Advocates tell The Mandarin they fear funding turf wars could diminish a vital community service.

It’s a Gough Whitlam legacy in the crosshairs of a federalism restructure: a successful Commonwealth-backed legal aid program that buttresses against “tough on crime” rhetoric in the states and faces an uncertain funding future.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services will have nowhere to go if, as some experts expect, the Commonwealth Indigenous Legal Assistance Program falls on the wrong side of the axe as part of clearing up the delineation between state and federal responsibilities.

While legal aid commissions and community legal services are jointly funded by the Commonwealth and states, ATSILS funding is entirely Commonwealth administered. This presents a problem for officials in the Attorney General’s Department, who previously ruled Commonwealth funds to the sector can only be spent on Commonwealth law matters, such as family and civil disputes. It’s not hard to guess where ATSILS has had to prioritise what little funding it gets: 90% of cases they take are criminal matters, a state jurisdiction.

The Council of Australian Governments secured a one-year stay-of-execution in June, giving time for the Commonwealth to consider Productivity Commission recommendations for the sector. The commission’s final report into access to justice arrangements is with the government for consideration and scheduled to be made public later this month.

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