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A stitch in time: we need a strong community legal sector

We all wish we could turn $2 into $2,000. But some Victorians face the nightmare inverse of this scenario: people facing vulnerability can’t get the legal help they need, so the failure to pay a $2.15 tram ticket can land them in serious debt. Worse still, that debt can turn into prison time.

Too many Victorians miss out on access to justice because they can’t find legal help. The gap is growing between people who can identify and enforce their legal rights and those who can’t.

Half a million people miss out on legal help in Australia every year. Inadequately funded legal aid means some people living in poverty may not be eligible, and then turn to community legal centres for help.

Three out of four community legal centres can’t meet demand. Almost 170,000 people were turned away in 2015–16, a third with no suitable alternative. Funding is the biggest factor for the community legal sector to help people in need.

People who don’t get legal help often become hostage to a system they can’t navigate. Simple civil legal problems can spiral into complicated ones, or can escalate into criminal matters. A person facing vulnerability could spend several nights in jail, all for the cost of that $2.15 tram ticket.

Legal problems are particularly prevalent among people who have a chronic health issue or disability, are single parents, unemployed, or experiencing homelessness or housing uncertainty.

Community legal centres can prevent or reduce the escalation of legal problems. Every dollar governments spends on community legal centres returns a benefit 18 times larger.

The Australian Government is reviewing community legal sector funding. VCOSS responded, making five headline recommendations to bolster community legal services so people can get legal help when needed.

VCOSS recommends that the Australian Government:

  • Increases funding for legal assistance services by an additional $120M each year
  • Reduces red tape for community legal centres
  • Strengthens collaboration in the justice sector
  • Allows community legal centres to advocate for systemic change
  • Fosters innovative service delivery between legal assistance and other community service organisations, such as health-justice partnerships.

The Victorian Government is a strong supporter of the community legal sector. It should continue to lead the way by collaborating with the community legal sector to deliver local services where they’re needed the most.

Resolving vulnerable people’s legal problems needs to be easier. Every level of government should match funds to community need so everyone gets access to justice.