DONE DEAL: A meeting held to discuss the future of the Grafton ALS.
DONE DEAL: A meeting held to discuss the future of the Grafton ALS. Tim Howard

Mayor blasts legal service move to Coffs

CLARENCE Valley Council mayor Jim Simmons says he is disgusted at confirmation that the Aboriginal Legal Service office in Grafton will close, stating that it will disadvantage the Aboriginal and wider community of the Clarence.

However, the Aboriginal Legal Service says the relocation of the office to Coffs Harbour will not affect the current service delivery in the Clarence Valley area.

"The board's decision to establish a new office in Coffs Harbour is evidence-based and follows a comprehensive review of localised need, demand, capacity and resources to provide representation services in the courts of Coffs Harbour, Grafton and Maclean,” ALS chair Bunja Smith said.

"We reiterate that the ALS will continue to provide culturally appropriate legal and support services to people in the Clarence Valley area, that won't change.”

Mr Smith said that with the Coffs Harbour Justice Precinct built in 2015, it had now become a "hub” for the regional court and legal services, with Family and Community Services also having their main operations in Coffs Harbour.

"Strategically, ALS must work in areas like Coffs Harbour where demands for our legal and support services are critical,” he said.

"The relocation of the ALS office will meet the increased local demand at Coffs Harbour and is the most economically viable use of existing resources. Therefore, the ALS board have made the decision to establish the ALS office in Coffs Harbour.

"We obviously recognise people's questions about our service delivery model in the Clarence Valley area and we appreciate that change is often difficult, however, the challenge the ALS is facing is ongoing funding constraints which means that we must focus on areas where there's increased demand for our services.”

However, Cr Simmons said the claims from the ALS board that the decision to relocate the service to Coffs Harbour would not affect service delivery in the Clarence defied logic.

"You cannot move the office 80-plus kilometres to the south without affecting the service it provides,” he said.

"We've heard that story before through the relocation of the ABC, numerous government agencies and some private companies. The result is the same each time; the service level goes down.

"The board's decision will mean a loss of jobs in Grafton, the removal of help provided through the Gurelgham centre and, importantly, great inconvenience for users of the service.”

Mr Simmons said he feared the move could lead to higher incarceration rates for Aboriginal residents of the Clarence because they would struggle to get support.

"Many of these people don't have driver's licences. It was difficult enough for many of them to get to Grafton for support; getting to Coffs Harbour is going to be next to impossible.,” he said.

Cr Simmons said he understood there were funding pressures on the ALS and with current funding levels it was difficult to keep all services operating as they had historically.

"Council has called on the State and Federal governments to increase funding to the ALS in order to keep the Grafton office opening,” he said.

"We have elections at State and Federal levels in the next couple of months. The ALS board should at least wait until our funding requests are considered and until after the elections to see if additional funding will be available.”

An ALS spokesman said that they planned to service the Clarence community in a similar way to current operations. He said with an expected increased demand for ALS services as well as planned increase in court sitting, their service delivery model would be expanded to include a consistent presence at Coffs Harbour court.

"A majority of our interaction with clients is either at court or by phone and this will not change. Our staff will continue to represent Aboriginal clients in Maclean and Grafton courts as they currently do - this will not change,” he said.

"Our staff will continue to represent inmates in correctional facilities - again, this will not change.

"The ALS will further engage with the community to seek their views on the expanded service delivery model for Grafton/Maclean/Coffs Harbour.”

The spokesman said media reports about the use of audio-visual links at Grafton Correctional Centre were not accurate, saying the ALS is not using the technology as a substitute for its own service delivery.

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