House debates

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Constituency Statements

Women's Legal Centre (ACT & Region) Inc.

9:42 am

Photo of Andrew LeighAndrew Leigh (Fraser, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

I recently received an email from a constituent of mine regarding funding cuts to community legal services. Due to issues with apprehended violence orders she asked that I not mention her name. As a single mother she works hard to provide for her children. Not rich by any stretch of the imagination, she is worried about the impact on lower income families who need those services. She had to leave her marriage because it became abusive when she was pregnant with her second child. She had to go through legal channels to ensure her safety and the safety of her children from the abuse. Without community legal assistance she and her children would have been exposed to prolonged abuse and trauma. Sadly, her story is not unique, nor is it uncommon.

I warned the House back in May of the danger posed by the Abbott government's cuts. The Women's Legal Centre will have $100,000 cut from its funding in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 financial years. It will have to cut its front-line services to accommodate this. It will mean the loss of its part-time solicitor, who this financial year undertook 535 advice activities. The centre provided approximately 600 hours of casework across 30 cases.

I visited the centre in May with the member for Isaacs. We met with Heidi Yates, Genevieve Bolton and some of the staff, and they told us how the funding cuts to community legal centres will disproportionately affect women. Half the women assisted by the Women's Legal Centre have been directly affected by domestic violence. A former client told The Canberra Times:

It was a bad enough experience as it was, and to have financials on top of that as well would just be the death of people …

… they kept me going … I just wanted to run and hide to be honest.

In December last year the government announced a $43 million cut to legal assistance services. Not content with their original $20 million cut to the community legal centre sector, the budget contained a further cut of $6 million in 2017-18. On top of that the government also announced restrictions to community legal centre advocacy and law reform work.

Family lawyer Juliette Ford argues that the funding cuts represent a false economy. She points out that cutting funding on the presumption that people can self-represent will only cause further delays in our court system. Heidi Yates, of the Women's Legal Centre, warned in a recent ABC interview that 'access to justice in Canberra is under threat in the current climate'.

I want to thank Ms Yates, Ms Bolton and the team at the Women's Legal Centre for the great work they do. My constituent wrote in her email:

I firmly believe in protecting our right to live safely, to protect our most vulnerable, is absolutely what we as Australians should be doing … don't take away a mother's right to protect her children.

We on this side of the House agree.