Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus announces $21m for Aboriginal legal services

Aboriginal legal services struggling to stay afloat amid a nationwide funding crisis have been handed a $21 million lifeline — but the head of one of those services says that is far from what is needed.

Lawyers at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) in the NT are among the lowest paid in the country despite juggling “enormous” caseloads, NAAJA’s chief executive, John Paterson, says.

At the same time, demand is rising at alarming rates, something data shows is being driven in many instances by an increase in family violence cases.

Hundreds of kilometers away in regional NSW, the Aboriginal Legal Service has frozen operations in 13 local courts as it grapples with a workload crisis.

In Queensland, chronic underfunding has left some services suspended since April.

John Paterson says lawyers at Aboriginal legal services are under immense stress.()

“The funding for services right across the nation is welcome, but our original ask was in the vicinity of $250 million, so you can see the difference there,” Mr Patterson said.

“But we understand there’s pressure on budgets all over the place.”

The one-off payment, announced by federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus on Friday, is earmarked to be circulated and divided across all states and territories by the sector’s peak body, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS).

Legal services were only at the halfway point of their five-year funding deals, but Mr Dreyfus said he recognized that inflation had driven up the cost of providing critical frontline services.

“The Australian government recognizes the critical role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services play in ensuring First Nations people have access to culturally appropriate and safe legal assistance,” he said.

NATSILS chair Karly Warner also welcomed the funding, but said “the bandaid measure will do little more than help keep the lights on”.

She said demand for Aboriginal Legal Services had increased by up to 100 per cent over the past five years, but core funding from the Commonwealth had declined in real terms.

“We fully expect service freezes to continue and that means bad outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians including unjust incarceration and separated families,” she said.

“It’s a welcome breather but ultimately is nowhere near enough to reverse the increasing freezes that are crippling our capacity to achieve justice for our clients.”

Lawyers pushed to ‘enormous stress and trauma’

Last year’s federal budget allocated $99 million to start up a “First Nations Justice Package”, which included $13.5 million to legal services across Australia, and $1 million to NATSILS.

A funding shortfall could see some of the NT’s most vulnerable people unable to get legal representation()

However, legal services across the country say the funds are yet to be released.

Mr Patterson said there would no doubt continue to be cuts to legal services, even after the $21 million had been carved up between the states and territories.

“Our lawyers in the Katherine regional office are averaging over 100 caseloads [each],” he said.

“In Darwin, lawyers are averaging about 76 to 80 cases…and it’s not easing.”

He said the strain on lawyers was “pushing them to enormous stress and trauma” and risking their clients’ right to represent.

“If we don’t have lawyers in those courts [because of an inadequate level of funding] there’s a possibility that legal support and assistance might not be provided to clients,” he said.

“We are desperate for every penny we can possibly get to continue to provide a legal service to our clients.”

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