The ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS) has called for an urgent review of funding for community legal centres and services following recommendations by the Standing Committee on Justice and Community Safety Report [pdf].
“Community legal centres in the ACT have never lacked demand, but pressures on their services have grown substantially since COVID-19,” said Dr Emma Campbell, ACTCOSS CEO.
“There are strong indications this pressure will only continue to increase. The reintroduction of punitive Centrelink mutual obligations, the coming end to protections supporting tenants and landlords impacted by COVID-19, the reported increase in prevalence of domestic violence incidents, and the reduction of federal income supports for welfare recipients have already increased pressures on community law organisations.
“Adequate funding for services provided by community legal centres is critical in tackling the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people in the justice and child protection systems. Sufficient resourcing is also urgently required if the ACT Government is to meet its commitment to supporting women affected by domestic and family violence.
“The looming spectre of reduced funding on 30 June will lead to significant reductions in the legal services available to vulnerable Canberrans. Services tell us they are currently experiencing unprecedented demand.
“ACTCOSS strongly urges the ACT Government to prioritise a review of the funding for community legal services. In the interim we call on the ACT Government to extend the additional COVID-19 assistance which has been a lifeline at a critical time. As noted by the Attorney General in the report, community legal centres provide an excellent return on investment – so the incentive for supporting them properly is not just ethical but economic.
“ACTCOSS also substantially supports the report’s other recommendations, many of which reflect our continued advocacy. We welcome the report’s acknowledgement of the urgency of correcting accommodation arrangements for women and for remandees at the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC).
“ACTCOSS similarly supports the report’s recommendation for an external merits review of child protection decisions and acknowledges that work is underway to implement this.
“However, ACTCOSS notes missed opportunities to confront the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities in our justice system. Given that Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people in Canberra are locked up at 19 times the rate of non-Indigenous people and constitute 24% of the ACT’s average daily prisoner population despite making up only 1.9% of the population, this is an unacceptable oversight.
“This rate of incarceration of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people can only be reduced by challenging decisions at every step of the justice system, for example overpolicing, unconscious bias, mandatory sentencing, and punitive (rather than public health) approaches to drug and alcohol issues.
“Addressing entrenched systemic bias is undoubtably a major task, but to simply ignore the injustices in place is unacceptable.
“ACTCOSS will continue to advocate for a fair, transparent and equitable justice system in the ACT. While the implementation of this report’s recommendations will be a step forward, there is still much more we must do to secure a justice system that is truly just,” Dr Campbell concluded.