The meeting listens attentively to ALS Northern Region manager Julie Perkins.
The meeting listens attentively to ALS Northern Region manager Julie Perkins. Tim Howard

Community slams ALS plan to move office to Coffs Harbour

A PROPOSAL to move the Aboriginal Legal Service office from Grafton to Coffs Harbour is looking shaky after a community meeting discredited most of the arguments to justify the move.

ALS NSW/ACT chairperson Bunja Smith, who came to Friday's meeting at Headspace Grafton, said the board would need to look at its decision again in the light of the information he received at the meeting.

"It's my job to bring this information back to the board and for it to make a decision," he said.

"I'm not saying what will happen, the board might decide to press ahead or it might overturn the decision."

He said the ALS board's next meeting would be in February.

In a sometimes fiery meeting that went for more than two hours, the ALS board decision, reached in Ballina in November, came under sustained attack from the local Aboriginal community.

The ALS delegation admitted its population figures for the Clarence Valley were incorrect.

"We acknowledge we got the population data wrong and we met with staff and met with council and we've updated that information, but it's not purely based on population," said the acting chief operating officer Michael Higgins.

A former ALS court liaison officer Avery Brown, who worked with the ALS for more than 20 years, said the decision to move the office was ludicrous and he was offended because of the lack of consultation with the local community.

 

Grafton ALS northern region manager Julie Perkins speaks at Friday's meeting. Former ALS stalwart Avery Brown looks on.
Grafton ALS northern region manager Julie Perkins speaks at Friday's meeting. Former ALS stalwart Avery Brown looks on. Tim Howard

"I didn't know about any planned move or any planned moves or any meetings where the community was consulted, he said.

"Nobody from Baryulgil or Malabugilmah or Yamba even knew what was going on."

He said the ALS had changed from an Aboriginal-led organisation to a "legal aid commission".

Clarence Valley Mayor Jim Simmons led a deputation from the council, including deputy mayor Jason Kingsley and Greens councillor Greg Clancy plus the director environment planning and community Des Schroder.

 

Grafton deputy mayor Jason Kingsley attacked the decision to move the office, pointing out most of the information used to justify the move did not stand up to scrutiny.
Grafton deputy mayor Jason Kingsley attacked the decision to move the office, pointing out most of the information used to justify the move did not stand up to scrutiny. Tim Howard

While Cr Simmons called for a pause in the decision making on the move, it was his deputy who took up the attack.

In a wide-ranging address, Cr Kingsley said none of the reasons the ALS gave for the move stood up to scrutiny.

Political candidates in the upcoming NSW and Federal elections also saw an opportunity to score points.

The ALP candidate for Page, Patrick Deegan, said a Labor government would increase funding for the ALS and promised shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus would look into the issue.

"It's clear that the ALS provides a very important service to local Aboriginal communities," Mr Deegan said.

"It also runs on a very tight budget, so unfortunately ALS management has had to make difficult decisions about the allocation of limited resources.

"The answer is to make sure ALS gets funded appropriately, so it can meet community needs here in the Clarence Valley and across NSW."

The ALS representative offered a defence for their decisions.

Mr Smith said modern technology, such as audio-visual links, allowed Aboriginal clients and legal services to meet remotely.

A number of speakers attacked him on this point, claiming Aboriginal people preferred face-to-face meetings.

Others said forcing video hooks-ups was damaging to Aboriginal cultural practices,

The acting CEO Janelle Clarke defended the population figure by claiming the Lismore ALS office took on some of the work in the Upper Clarence.

 

ALS acting CEO Janelle Clarke defends the decision to move the Grafton ALS office to Coffs Harbour.
ALS acting CEO Janelle Clarke defends the decision to move the Grafton ALS office to Coffs Harbour. Tim Howard

Ms Clarke then claimed they represented people at Ballina, which was not in the Grafton ALS district, which provoked more outcry from the meeting.



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