Labor understand the importance of legal assistance services in providing access to justice for all Australians, and has always supported these vital services.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) operate in every State and Territory to deliver culturally appropriate front line legal services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in need. Consistent with Labor’s long-standing commitment to ensure access to justice for all Australians, Labor will ensure that the ATSILS are able to carry out their vital role by committing approximately $24 million to the ATSILS over three years, comprising:
- $18.18 million to completely reverse the devastating funding shortfalls imposed by the Abbott-Turnbull Government;
- $3.6 million to boost the ATSILS capacity to deal specifically with the scourge of family violence, as part of Labor’s Family Violence Package;
- $2.25 million to build capacity in National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), the peak national representative body for the ATSILS.
For over forty years, the ATSILS have delivered legal assistance, community legal education, advocacy, law reform advocacy and prisoner through-care to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in contact with the justice system. However, significant cuts to the eight ATSILS by the Abbott-Turnbull Government are undermining the capacity of the ATSILS to provide their vital services to vulnerable Indigenous Australians and communities in desperate need.
Labor recognises that the ATSILS must be properly resourced to fulfil their critical role for Indigenous Australians. For example:
- Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are twice as likely to be in custody than in higher education.
- In 1991, at the time of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were 7 times more likely to be in prison. Despite ongoing efforts to improve this appalling statistic, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) ‘Prisoners in Australia’ data, in 2015 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were 15.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than other Australians.
- ABS statistics also reveal that since 2004 there has been an 88 per cent increase in the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders imprisoned, while the non-Indigenous rate has risen by 28 per cent.
The provision of expert, culturally appropriate legal assistance is often critical to ensuring that Indigenous Australians, particularly younger offenders, are not drawn into the downward cycle that often commences with a prison sentence for a relatively minor offence.
With respect to the scourge of family violence, which affects all communities, it is deplorable that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of injuries caused by assault than non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Again, access to legal support may be critically important to survivors of family violence.
Cuts to legal assistance services are a hallmark of Senator Brandis’ disgraceful tenure as Attorney-General under the Abbott-Turnbull Government. To add insult to injury, despite having responsibility for the ATSILS as the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis has refused every invitation to meet with the executive officers of the NATSILS throughout his entire term of office.
NATSILS report that if unaddressed, the impending funding cuts to the ATSILS imposed by the Abbott-Turnbull Government will:
- Significantly impact on the capacity of the ATSILS to deliver front line legal services, particularly as budgets have already been cut significantly.
- Require the ATSILS to reduce staffing numbers not only for 2017-18, but also going forward into 2018-19 and 2019-20.
- Result in an unavoidable withdrawal of frontline services resulting in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples being unrepresented in courts and unable to access culturally competent legal services.
- Have unintended costs and put more pressure on the courts, the health sector, corrections services and in this way increase costs to the Federal Government.
- Deny many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the access to justice and procedural fairness that all Australian citizens deserve.
A Shorten Labor Government will not let this happen.