Albanese must get it right for the Aboriginal Legal Service, community lives depends on it 

Amid a funding crisis for the Aboriginal Legal Service, people gathered at an emergency meeting to share stories about access to justice.

CW: This article contains mentions of Indigenous people who have passed away and Indigenous deaths in custody. 

As the Voice Referendum inches closer, one of the issues at stake is trust. 

On Wednesday night, over three hundred people showed up in solidarity with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (ATSILS), from community legal centres, advocacy organisations and grassroots supporters, successive federal governments – particularly the Coalition years – have not met increasing demands for ATSILS’ services. It needs $250 million to be sustainable in the long run. The organisation was forced, just two weeks ago, to freeze services in crucial regional centres to sustain its operations. 

Among the stories shared was that of Makayla Reynolds, a Gamilaraay woman and a staff member with the NSW Aboriginal Legal Service and “proud sister” of Nathan Reynolds. 

Nathan Reynolds died in custody at John Morony Correctional Centre in 2018 following “inadequate” and “unreasonably delayed” emergency response. Reynolds said that one of the distinctions with the Aboriginal Legal Service was its provision of culturally safe legal aid as opposed to other practices. 

“We had legal services all over in Australia contacting us because they saw a civil claim could arise from Nathan’s case, ALS did not treat us like that, they were culturally appropriate. Throughout the three years, they answered us any time we needed help.

“We didn’t have to worry about any of that [financial resources] with the ALS,” an emotional Raynold told the room.  

Similar to Reynolds, Matthew Cash believes that, without the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS), he and his family would have been lost in the legal system during the start of Australia’s COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. 

“Without VALS, I really wouldn’t have been able to make a connection into the Victorian legal system so I really wouldn’t have been able to have a voice for my sister.”

Reynolds concurred, saying that one of the greatest assets behind ATSILS’ model was its holistic approach to legal representation which includes other specialists to help families “be strong enough” to navigate the legal system, including coronial inquests. 

“I think once families knew that I went through the same story as them, we connected on an emotional level as well as on a professional level like an Aboriginal family,” said Reynolds. 

From the stories, one thing is clear – proper funding of ATSILS’ work is indispensable for Indigenous access to justice. ATSILS’ Redfern Model, emerging from the Australian Black Power Movement and being the first free legal service in Australia, paved the way for community legal centres from its foundation in 1970 to this day. 

The need for trust in government for the Voice to be meaningful  

What Wednesday’s emergency meeting highlighted was a mammoth gap between grassroots demands for Indigenous justice and government action. An invitation was extended to Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney but “due to other commitments”, they did not attend. 

Dreyfus released a statement stopping short of committing to ATSILS’ demand and instead, promised to consider ATSILS’ funding arrangements in a future independent review of community legal aid due to commence this year, including “alternative” funding arrangements. In layman’s terms, Dreyfus’ response is milquetoast and inadequate.

The consequences of this will be dire: Indigenous communities being left without legal assistance in the face of states’ attempts to prosecute and lock up the most vulnerable members of these communities. The government’s failure to adequately fund the ATSILS will lead to substantial, and avoidable, harm. 

Beyond the immediate harm the lack of funding is doing to First Nations communities is the issue of trust. Trust is not unconditional. This colony’s history has given its Indigenous communities very little to be convinced that it will listen. Indeed, one of the key rationales behind the Voice to Parliament is that constitutional entrenchment will help to break the vicious cycle of successive (and racist) governments ignoring the needs of Indigenous people.

To break this, First Nations communities must be able to trust that the federal and state governments will listen and take action to close the gap. 

Yet, two months into 2023, Queensland’s Labor government passed draconian bail law reforms that breaches children’s human rights. These are kneejerk reforms that ATSILS’ own principal legal officer Greg Shadbolt warns will “widen the funnel of kids going into detention” and are ineffective. It’s taking one step forward and two steps backward at the same time.  

Although Albanese is promising a Voice to begin remedying the colony’s horrific treatment of Indigenous people, this can only be the beginning. There are small actions that have been taken, dropping former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s appeal against Love v Commonwealth, discontinuing some Northern Territory Intervention laws. These, however, are minute changes in comparison to the enormous task that the federal (and state) governments have yet to own in full. 

If the government is truly serious about closing the gap, it should start by properly funding ATSILS. 

Sign the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service’s (ATSILS) petition calling for emergency and sustainable funding here

Find Honi’s Editorial on the Voice to Parliament here.