Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cuts to community legal centres

The Federal Government announced yesterday that the Community Legal Services Program (CLSP), which funds community legal centres (including the Tenants' Union of NSW), will be cut by almost $20 million over the next four year years.

Funding to other legal assistance services, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and the Legal Aid Commissions run by State and Territory Governments, is also being cut.

Amongst the CLCs, the EDOs and New South Wales's Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) are singled out for particular cuts: none of these services will receive CLSP funding beyond June next year.

As an exercise in government cost-cutting, this does not make a lot of sense.

The essential work of CLCs is to solve legal problems – problems that would otherwise cause greater cost, to the individuals affected and to the administration of justice.

So, for example, when we're giving advice to tenants who are having a problem getting repairs done, part of the advice is: 'keep paying your rent'.   

This is to keep a repairs problem from also becoming an arrears problem – and, possibly, a tenancy termination problem, and a moving-out-fast/finding-accommodation/risk-of-homelessness/actual-homelessness problem. 

Landlords and governments may be surprised at how often CLCs prevent problems from ending up before the Tribunal, and before the counters of Housing NSW offices.

We know firsthand the value of the work of the EDO NSW and PIAC. 

During the drafting of Shelter NSW's Shelter Brief on 'Heritage and Social Housing: implications for repairs, maintenance, modifications and redevelopments', the EDO was an invaluable source of advice on the law. Heritage protection in New South Wales is largely effected through planning law, and as contentious as planning law is, everyone agrees that it's complicated – bloody complicated! 

Citizens who grapple with this area of the law without expert guidance such as that provided by the EDO can easily make mistakes that are costly for themselves personally, and for the courts that administer proceedings. 

PIAC's work ranges across different areas of the law. In relation to housing, it operates the Homeless Persons Legal Service, which solves legal problems for homeless persons individually – quite often the problems that make them homeless – and helps put the experiences of homeless persons across to government agencies, such as Centrelink and Housing NSW, to improve their service provision.

Without PIAC, the EDOs, and other CLCs, this work would not get done, and these problems would not get solved, to greater cost to vulnerable persons and the whole of the community.

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