ALHR supports NATSILS and all ATSILS calls for an immediate joint $250 million emergency support package from the Federal Government.
ALHR has today written the the Commonwealth Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus KC MP and the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney MP, to express our profound concern at the human rights impacts of a funding crisis that is leading to service freezes at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) across the country.
ATSILS are facing an unprecedented workload crisis. The total demand for their services has almost doubled in less than five years but, alarmingly, core funding from the Commonwealth has declined in real terms.
ALHR is a committed ally of all ATSILS services across Australia. These services play an absolutely indispensable role in the provision of high quality, culturally safe frontline legal services that work to protect the fundamental human rights of First Nations Australians.
Access to justice is an internationally recognised human right and indispensable to democratic governance and the rule of law, as well as to combating inequality and exclusion.
The Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) Limited has been forced to freeze criminal law services beginning 15 May at thirteen Local Courts in New South Wales. All other ATSILS around Australia are experiencing similar challenges and are being forced to make difficult decisions to freeze or cancel core services – services that save lives.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people rely on ATSILS to have any chance of equal access to justice.
To our national shame, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are, per capita, the most imprisoned people on the planet and ten times more likely to die in custody than the general population. First Nations women are the fastest growing prison population in Australia. First Nations children are grossly overrepresented in Australia’s criminal justice and care and protection systems. Culturally safe access to legal representation and advice is a fundamental cornerstone of work to close these gaps, and prevent them from widening.
Service freezes risk disastrous human rights outcomes, including increased family violence and child removal, unjust incarceration, and deaths in custody.
ALHR strongly supports the national peak body NATSILS and all ATSILS calls for an immediate joint $250 million emergency support package from the Federal Government.
This package entails a $54 million ‘ATSILS Workforce Continuity Fund’ to be delivered over the next six months to immediately resource additional external support where Aboriginal Legal Service lawyers are unable to reach clients and to start recruitment for new permanent staff; and $196 million over the 2023-2024 and 2024-20225 financial years in order to simply maintain current levels of service and prevent service freezes.
The provision of this crisis funding absolutely cannot wait until after the expiration of the National Legal Assistance Partnership and its review. It is needed right now to meet the legal needs of some of Australia’s most vulnerable communities.
ALHR notes that the Federal Government has recently committed $368 billion for submarines and $17.7 billion for tax cuts that primarily benefit the most economically advantaged people in Australia.
The Federal Government of a developed Western liberal democracy that is genuinely committed to listening to the voices of its First Nations people, to Closing The Gap, to upholding human rights and valuing the inherent equal dignity and worth of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, can afford to invest $250 million in saving ATSILS services.
Read ALHR’s letter in full here