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 ABCâs AM program that it was an âimportant announcement for the sectorâ, and said that the Government had listened to the sectorâs 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 âgratefulâ the Government had reversed the cuts, yet she also commented that âthe legal assistance sector remains critically underfundedâ.
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 Womenâs 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 âwithin the courts and legal services sub-function [is] estimated to decrease by 30.2 percent in real terms from 2017-18 to 2020-21â. The Papers state that âfunding beyond this point is not for publication, pending negotiationsâ.