Aboriginal Legal Services call for urgent funding as services freeze

Demand for the Aboriginal Legal Service in NSW/ACT has doubled over the past five years, but government funding for the peak body has declined in real terms. ALS staff, lawyers, and caseworkers are under greater pressure than ever before.

Aboriginal Legal Services (ALS) from NSW, ACT, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Tasmania have released a joint statement calling for $250 million in urgent government funding to avoid a freeze on services.

Demand for the ALS in NSW/ACT has doubled over the past five years, but government funding for the peak body has declined. ALS staff, lawyers, and caseworkers are under greater pressure than ever before.

In a media release, Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) CEO Karly Warner stated that “all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services around Australia are being forced into difficult decisions to mitigate this workload crisis.

“We’re taking action to protect the physical and mental health of our staff so they can continue delivering the high-quality services our clients deserve.”

Established in Redfern in 1970 by a group of Indigenous activists, including Paul Coe and Gary Foley, the Aboriginal Legal Service has a long history of being a critical legal resource for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Today, the ALS provides legal advice and representation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, offering a multitude of services in criminal law, care and protection law, and tenancy disputes. Between NSW and the ACT, the ALS employs more than 250 full-time staff across 25 locations.

In 2015, the organisation’s government allocation was slashed by seventeen per cent of its yearly budget, equating to $3.15 million in lost funding. These cuts catalysed a successful campaign to save the ALS. Now, it is sounding the alarm again, claiming the service is on the “brink of collapse.”

This follows a pattern of roundly criticised government spending, including a $240 million allocation towards a stadium in Hobart. Hobart already has a stadium. More notoriously, the Albanese government’s $368 billion AUKUS deal further decries the situation ALS staff and clients now find themselves in.

As of Friday, the ALS has been forced to freeze some services across multiple locations in regional Australia — with more services expected to be slashed if much-needed funding does not arrive within the next four weeks.

“This will lead to more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody, more families being torn apart by child removal and family violence, more children in prison and more intergenerational trauma,” explained Warner in an email.

In Queensland, four communities have frozen their services until at least 30 June. Locations in the Northern Territory are also under pressure, experiencing significantly greater caseloads since the strengthening of bail laws earlier this year.

In the NSW areas of Byron Bay, Eden, Forster, Junee, Lithgow, Moss Vale, Muswellbrook, Scone, Singleton, Temora, Tenterfield, West Wyalong, and Wauchope will be without criminal law services — including representation for juveniles — from 15 May.

Aboriginal Legal Services across the country are holding an emergency meeting this Wednesday 3 May at 3pm to call for government funding to resume. Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney are expected to attend, and will likely face interrogation by ALS executives over the current crisis.