Community Legal Centre Funding in the Federal Budget

Posted 1 June 2017

In handing down the 2017-18 Budget Papers, the Federal Government has promised to increase funding to the community legal sector by $55.7 million over the next three years.

Attorney-General George Brandis told the ABC’s AM program that it was an ‘important announcement for the sector’, and said that the Government had listened to the sector’s requests. There had previously been a sustained media campaign protesting an expected funding decrease, as well as pressure from other parties within Parliament.

President of the Law Council of Australia, Fiona McLeod, said in a press release that she was ‘grateful’ the Government had reversed the cuts, yet she also commented that ‘the legal assistance sector remains critically underfunded’.

The provision of Commonwealth funds to the sector is determined by the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services, which commenced in July 2015 and expires in July 2020. The Agreement had forecast the 2017-18 budget as the low point in the distribution of this funding, dropping from $257 million in 2016-17 to $249 million in 2017-18. The funding was then forecast to rise back to $253 million in 2018-19. Total financial contributions with respect of the Agreement were just over $1,266 million, with $136 million to community legal centres, and a further $38 million to specified CLCs named in the agreement. The Agreement states that funding to these specified CLCs was guaranteed until the end of the 2016-17 period.

Senator Brandis had noted that funding for domestic violence and family law services would be a priority in distributing the funds, seemingly confirmed when looking at the lists of specified CLCs, which includes a number of Women’s Legal Services.

Federal Government funding of the community legal sector after the Agreement expires in 2020 is likely, yet again, to be contentious. The 2017-18 Budget Papers note that Commonwealth spending ‘within the courts and legal services sub-function [is] estimated to decrease by 30.2 percent in real terms from 2017-18 to 2020-21’. The Papers state that ‘funding beyond this point is not for publication, pending negotiations’.