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Thousands of people denied legal assistance every year put at risk

Thousands of people facing disadvantage across Victoria are being denied access to crucial legal assistance every year due to a $46 million government funding gap, putting them at greater risk of falling into debt, homelessness, and contact with the criminal justice system, the Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) says in a submission lodged this week.

Narrowing the Justice Gap calls on the federal and Victorian governments to urgently increase funding to Victoria’s legal assistance services, particularly community legal centres across the state, to meet the growing gap in demand from people facing disadvantage.

It also calls on the Victorian government to lobby the federal government to reverse funding cuts and instead boost its funding, to further fill the services gap.

Despite high levels of need, community legal centres in Victoria face federal funding cuts of about 30 per cent from June 2017. The Productivity Commission has recommended that $200 million be immediately injected into civil legal assistance services nationally “to address the most pressing gaps in services”. To meet the Victorian shortfall, a minimum additional $18 million each year is needed as an urgent interim investment from the state government, with a minimum additional $28 million from the federal government.

VCOSS CEO Emma King said unless the state and federal governments injected the desperately needed funds, thousands of people facing disadvantage will continue to be denied service. More than 80 per cent of people helped by community legal centres are on incomes of less than $26,000 a year and more than 150,000 people were turned away from community legal centres nationally in 2013-14.

“Community legal centres provide invaluable legal assistance to people who could not afford a private lawyer, but at the moment, they are being forced to turn away many thousands of people every year due to this funding gap,” Emma King said.

“If people cannot access the legal assistance they need, it can have terrible effects on their lives and on their families. It can mean debts from unpaid fines continue to escalate, it can put people at risk of becoming homeless, and it can lead people to have contact with the criminal justice system that they may otherwise have been supported to avoid.

“Increasing funding to expand people’s access to community legal centres and other legal services makes sense. It supports people facing disadvantage, prevents issues from escalating, eases pressure on an overworked justice system and helps build stronger families and communities overall.”

Narrowing the Justice Gap is VCOSS’ response to the Victorian government’s Access to Justice Review. It contains recommendations aimed to ensure all Victorians can access legal support and services when faced with a range of issues. Recommendations call on the Victorian government to:

  • Provide additional funding to expand legal assistance, particularly through community legal centres, to help them meet demand from people facing disadvantage, and advocate for the Commonwealth to do the same.
  • Expand Aboriginal legal services, including the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention & Legal Service to provide services statewide.
  • Ensure people living in rural and regional Victoria have the same capability to access legal assistance as people living in Melbourne.
  • Increase access to training, advice and resources about legal issues, systems and services for non-legal workers and foster innovation, including by supporting the expansion of models like health-justice partnerships.
  • Expand ombudsmen and dispute resolution schemes to sectors without industry schemes.

“Ensuring everyone in Victoria has access to justice and legal services is key to protecting people’s rights and supporting people to overcome disadvantage,” Emma King said.

“VCOSS welcomes the Andrews Government’s review into this issue and looks forward to its response.”