Monday, 20 February 2017

Groundhog Day for women's services in Australia

Since 2013 the Abbott & Turnbull Federal Governments have announced up to $1b in savings measures that are cutting community services for the people in greatest need in Australia:

*$500 million over five years for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community services (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet under The Hon Tony Abbott and Senator the Hon Nigel Scullion)
*$270 million over four years from social services and a freeze on indexation of sector funding (Department of Social Services under The Hon Scott Morrison)
*$15 million from the community legal sector, which remains in place for sector support and capacity, including legal aid, community legal centres, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, and women’s family violence legal and prevention services (Attorney General’s Department under Senator the Hon George Brandis)
*Foreshadowed cuts of $197 million over three years from health (Department of Health under The Hon Sussan Ley) [Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), 13 January 2017]

The Saturday Paper, excerpt from Federal cuts to family violence reform funding, 11 February 2017:

Just before Christmas, the Women’s Legal Service Victoria was notified that $200,000 of federal funding would be shaved. The service offers pro bono advice, representation and mediation for more than 3000 women each year, women who would otherwise not be able to afford it. They consider themselves a front-line service. “We can’t keep up with demand currently,” Joanna Fletcher tells me. “And this is before the cuts.”
Fletcher is the service’s chief executive. She is both angry and incredulous. “We’re already turning people away,” she says. “And it’s sad, because our service model is about providing service to those with barriers to justice. We’re now having to make decisions about what to cut, about what the least worst options are. We are incredibly frustrated on behalf of our clients. This is very short-sighted. We know from experience that early legal assistance is vital, for the protection of women but also for quicker outcomes.”
It’s a point made by all the family lawyers I spoke to for this piece: those in the legal system without representation spend a lot more time there. As well as diminishing a woman’s protection, it is ultimately costlier, and adds to procedural logjams. “There’s incredible commitment at the state level here,” Fletcher says, “but the apparent federal commitment hasn’t been followed by a financial commitment.” 
Fletcher’s Queensland counterparts have yet to be notified whether their funding will also be cut. They will be told at the end of March, but they are already preparing themselves for the worst. There is the same anger and incredulity there. “We’re absolutely alarmed,” says Angela Lynch, the acting co-ordinator of the Women’s Legal Service Queensland. “A 30 per cent cut would be catastrophic. Currently, we can only answer 50 per cent of incoming calls on our legal hotline. This will only worsen with the cuts. So, that’s much fewer women receiving advice and assistance. We’re a core service, and yet as it is we can’t properly service all women because we’re under-resourced. This is about women’s safety. Their lives.”
She said cuts “don’t make any sense when there’s a national plan, and the PM has made announcements. It makes no sense. We are a front-line service. And we do great work, and we push our money further than any other community service that I can think of. A third of our income is raised by fundraising or corporate partnerships. Up here in Queensland, family violence is still something that’s publicly discussed. There’s the rollout here of the Not Now, Not Ever recommendations. There was the horrific reminder of its importance last week, with the murder-suicide of Teresa Bradford. There’s momentum. But I cannot understand these federal cuts.”
Teresa Bradford was killed by her estranged husband on the Gold Coast. He was out on bail on other domestic violence charges. After Bradford’s death, the Women’s Legal Service Queensland hotline experienced a 50 per cent increase in calls, a spike common in the aftermath of atrocities. “We’re already chronically underfunded,” Lynch says. “When you’re cutting front-line services, you have to ask: is the federal government really committed to reducing family violence? Now we wait. We’ll know on the 31st of March. But we’ve survived for more than 30 years. We’ll fight on.” 
Marlene Ebejer is the principal lawyer of Ebejer and Associates, and a family law specialist. She tells me the cuts will have “diabolical” consequences. “These cuts won’t save money,” she says. “Cutting funding for women’s services cuts legal mediations, which stops things getting to court. This is an atrocious outcome. Already the courts can’t cope. There are massive delays, and delays are extended by those who aren’t represented.” 
Ebejer speaks bluntly, and passionately, about the need for legal reform but tells me that to argue for change is to experience groundhog day. Every lawyer she knows has made the same points for years: in a system where intervention orders fall under the state’s authority, and family law courts are federal, there needs to be improved cross-jurisdictional coherence. She also argues for increased mediation, to decrease the number of matters before court, and for the proper triaging of matters.
Herald Sun, 15 January 2017:
DOMESTIC violence victims and their children in regional NSW could be put at greater risk when federal government funding cuts to legal aid services begin to kick in later this year.
The cuts will also force a legal centre in southern Sydney to axe a program providing free legal advice to international students and immigrants being ripped off by their employers.
The services are among more than 15 centres across the state being forced to axe programs for vulnerable people after the funding cuts take ­affect in July this year.
Elizabeth Evatt Community Legal Centre managing principal solicitor Arlia Fleming said the 19 per cent funding cut at her Katoomba centre would force a massive reduction in services to Bathurst and ­Lithgow.
“Currently we go to Lithgow and Bathurst on a weekly basis to give legal advice and we may have to reduce that to a monthly outreach,” Ms Fleming said.
“The most common cases we deal with are around family and domestic violence issues and this could mean children are left in unsafe situations ­because people feel like they have to hand over their children to someone who has been perpetrating violence.”……
Destroy the Joint, 19 February 2017:

No comments: