Slashed funding means locals will lose legal support

Lawyer Fia Norton fears the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre will lose a number of important legal and advocacy services for local residents if mooted Federal Government funding cuts go ahead.
Lawyer Fia Norton fears the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre will lose a number of important legal and advocacy services for local residents if mooted Federal Government funding cuts go ahead. Cathy Adams

CUTS to funding mean hundreds of Clarence Valley residents will be in legal limbo from July 1, 2017.

This is because the current Federal Government cut community legal centre funding by 30% in the 2014 budget.

Unlike in capital cities, there is just one free legal service for our residents to turn to when they are facing problems relating to domestic violence, divorce and separation, child protection, employment, credit, debt and consumer contract issues, disability discrimination, tenancy and neighbourhood disputes and even minor legal issues including driving offences.

Locals who do not qualify for legal aid and who do not have enough cash to hire private solicitors will often seek help at the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre.

Last financial year, the centre provided general legal information for 1867 clients in the Clarence, Casino, Murwillumbah, Lismore, Byron, Ballina, Kyogle and Tweed.

The centre completed 851 advice sessions; provided more than five hours of legal representation each for 200 clients; completed 45 community legal education projects and 90 community development activities; and submitted 18 law reform submissions.

While it's still unclear how much the centre will lose, it was announced in the 2014 Federal Budget that $12.1 million would be cut nationwide in 2017-18, $11.6 million would go in 2018-19 and a further $11.1 million would be cut in 2019-20.

NRCLC manager Fia Norton said she was preparing for the funding to cost three part-time staff - two lawyers and one community development worker at the agency's Murwillumbah and Casino offices.

The centre's innovative Mentors in Violence Prevention program, which teaches community members how to prevent violence against women, is also on the chopping block.

"It's really sad because the NRCLC is in its 20th year of operation.

"Obviously we have to decide how we're going to implement the cuts when they come.

"When anyone is vulnerable for any reason they need all the legal options we offer - like negotiating debt, looking at phone contracts or getting victim's compensation."

Ms Norton urged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose government announced the cuts, and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to make sure our region gets a fair go.

"If the government is going to cut our funding when there was actually a recommendation for an increase in funding, it's just farcical," she said.

There are 198 community legal centres across Australia.

The NSW centres helped 61,917 clients in 2014-15, providing 43,720 pieces of information and 76,497 pieces of advice.

National Association of Community Legal Centres policy and advocacy director Amanda Alford said CLCs were often the only source of legal support for regional and rural residents so it was vital the funding cuts were reversed.

"The impact of the cuts on centres in regional areas is likely to be greater because often there's no alternative - there is nowhere else for people to go," Ms Alford said.

Topics:  community legal centre funding cuts

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