A top end Aboriginal legal aid service says it will no longer have a dedicated family violence lawyer or civil lawyers to help represent victims of family violence as a consequence of the Abbott government’s savage cuts to Aboriginal legal aid, despite Aboriginal women making up 70 per cent of family violence victims in the Northern Territory.
It comes despite the national focus on domestic violence, driven by the current Australian of the Year Rosie Batty.
The federal Coalition announced it was ripping $13.4 million from Aboriginal legal aid services last year, but the funding cuts don’t hit until July. Already, Aboriginal legal aid services around the country are bracing for the blow.
The peak body for Aboriginal legal services – National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) – had a funding request knocked back under the chaotic Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) last week. It applied under the IAS, administered by Prime Minister and Cabinet, after the Attorney-General’s Department refused to reverse its decision. It runs on only $295,000 a year.
Already underfunded Aboriginal legal aid services, which deliver critically needed, culturally appropriate legal representation to Aboriginal people, jailed at the highest rates in the western world, are facing office closures and job losses, despite the Abbott government’s claims the cuts will only hit policy and advocacy positions.
The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) expects the cuts to its budget will be $1.6 million, although the Attorney General’s Department has not let the sector know which legal aid services will be hit the hardest.
That would equate to between one-seventh and one-tenth of the NAAJA budget, the agency’s Manager of Law and Justice Programs Jared Sharp told a parliamentary inquiry into domestic violence earlier this week.
He says that Aboriginal women will be particularly vulnerable and that a dedicated family violence lawyer who works in the domestic violence court will be forced to go, as well as civil representation for victims of domestic violence.
Nearly 73 per cent of domestic violence victims in the NT are Aboriginal. They are 23 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than non-Aboriginal women, and even then there are concerns that family violence is underreported in Aboriginal communities.
“Our criminal lawyers will represent defendants who are charged with family domestic violence offending,” Mr Sharp told the inquiry.
“Fewer lawyers mean a higher workload for those lawyers.
“We have a dedicated family domestic violence lawyer who works in the domestic violence court. That position will no longer be there, so those defendants will be unrepresented.
“In our civil practice we represent victims of family and domestic violence – applications for criminal injuries, compensation, or it could be victims who are in the process of tenancy proceedings where Territory housing might be seeking to evict them or to have them pay for arrears of damages, often in the context of family and domestic violence.”
“They are situations where, without a lawyer, the women particularly will be extremely vulnerable under the cuts.”
He says the devastating rates of Aboriginal child removal in the Territory will also impact Aboriginal women more harshly, especially if taken in a family violence situation.
“In one particularly horrific example a new mother faced an application to remove her newborn baby from her care. We acted immediately to preserve that mother-child relationship to enable that mother to breastfeed that baby,” Mr Sharp told the inquiry.
“The application was brought about because of family and domestic violence. However, the perpetrator of that violence was in prison at the time.
“But for NAAJA having that ability to be the advocate for that victim of violence, that child would have been removed with all of the intended consequences.”
The Law Society NT’s Tass Liveris told the inquiry the funding uncertainty from the Abbott government is already hitting services like NAAJA and the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service, who provide legal assistance to some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
He said the family law services in NAAJA was cut, and wasn’t able to operate for three to four months last year because of the impending cuts. They were awarded a one-off grant by the federal government for 2012-13 but the unit will again close in July.
“That means that there is going to be no family law service provider. NAAJA is not going to be able to take on clients outside of Darwin and Katherine,” Mr Liveris told the inquiry.
“It will not be able to provide duty lawyer assistance for domestic violence orders and things like that, other than for people who are in custody.
“So we are seeing the direct contraction of the ability of those agencies to provide services. What it further does is removes from the policy development the people who are on the coal face, on the front line, speaking to people in the communities, seeing their problems and dealing with their problems.
“We say that they are an integral part of ongoing policy development in this. The cuts that have already been made, in addition to the prospective cuts, will have an immediate impact upon the ability of these agencies to perform this work.”
There are also concerns over the scrapping of Crime Victims Assistance under the Territory CLP government.
“My understanding, and it has been a while since we looked at this issue, is that they have changed the funding for the crimes victims support unit,” Liveris said.
“I also understand the Territory government has an interest in cutting the crime victims assistance that is available. There are flow-on effects from that. These services provide very important assistance to the victims of violent offences, which would include domestic violence.”
A spokesperson from the Attorney General’s Department told New Matilda “The Government is committed to protecting the most vulnerable members of our community and will continue to provide a very substantial amount of funding for legal assistance.”
“This funding will be prioritised to the delivery of front-line services over advocacy activities across all legal assistance programmes.”
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