May 2023: Federal Budget response
The 2023-24 budget demonstrates the government’s clear intention to target expenditure towards supporting people experiencing financial hardship to meet cost-of-living pressures. We welcome this focus. However, the budget contains very little new funding to improve access to justice, or to support struggling legal assistance services to meet overwhelming demand for legal help. People experiencing poverty and intersectional disadvantage are more likely to have multiple legal problems, to have fewer resources to resolve them, and to become enmeshed in the criminal legal system. As such, it is particularly disappointing that legal assistance services have been largely overlooked in a budget that focuses its attention squarely on doing more for people doing it tough.
As the Law Council of Australia notes in its budget response, ‘the government already knows that significant additional investment in the sector is needed and waiting for the [mid-point review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership] only means that people continue to go without access to the services they need.’
On budget day, media reports quoting government sources suggested community legal services might benefit from the commitment of an additional $4 billion over four years to help government and community services for people experiencing disadvantage to meet rising costs through more realistic indexation. Unfortunately, the Attorney-General’s Deparment has since confirmed that, as happened in the October 2022 budget, community legal services funded under the National Legal Assistance Partnership are excluded from this measure.
More broadly, we agree with Economic Justice Australia (EJA) that the budget represents a ‘heartening paradigm shift on social security payments. As EJA notes, there are no new compliance measures, ParentsNext is abolished and there is targeted support for single parents, some renters, and people over the age of 55. However, the meagre increase to the base rate of JobSeeker, Youth Allowance, and Austudy of just $2.80 per day, means these payments remain poverty payments. With structural deficits forecast over the forward estimates and tough economic times ahead, the government must use the 2024-25 budget to abandon the unfair and unnecessary stage three tax cuts and raise the rate to $76 per day.
This budget could have achieved much more
While we welcome many budget measures aimed at supporting people experiencing financial disadvantage, the budget is disappointing for the legal assistance sector overall. Demand for legal assistance is growing and, financially, our sector is going backwards. In a tight fiscal context, investment in early intervention measures that prevent problems from escalating is a sensible budget move. Unexpectedly high revenue and the first budget surplus in 15 years provided the government with an opportunity to do more to address the chronic underfunding of community legal services and to fund other progressive access to justice initiatives.
We are concerned about the lack of new money for community-controlled Aboriginal legal services, which will begin to close their books to new clients across the country from 1 July if the funding crisis they face is not addressed.
Investment in the community legal sector prevents downstream costs
Investment in community legal services means people can access legal help where and when they need it, regardless of their income or postcode. This helps to prevent problems escalating, improves outcomes for people and saves governments money over the long term. Investing in the community legal sector returns an investment of $18 for every $1 spent.
Welcome measures include:
- $18.4m to assist women and children fleeing violence in international abduction cases. We note, however, that Women’s Legal Services Australia has asked the Attorney General’s Department for clarity as to which services will receive the funding to provide legal representation and alternative dispute resolution.
- $38.2m to extend the temporary visa holders’ pilot until 2025, which provides funding to organisations, including women’s legal services, to support migrant women experiencing family violence to navigate the legal and immigration systems. We are awaiting clarity on how much of this funding will be going to women’s legal services and community legal centres. We also note that this funding has now been delivered through a ‘pilot’ program since October 2021. Given its demonstrated success, the government should provide sustainable, long-term funding for the program from 2025–26.
- $10 million over four years for justice reinvestment initiatives in Central Australia. While a welcome measure, we are waiting for more details on which services will receive this funding and whether any will flow to legal assistance services in the Northern Territory.
- We welcome the $5.5m over four years to support the pathway to permanent residency for people on Temporary Protection and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas.
- We welcome the support for people to take up energy efficiency measures and the set-up of the Climate Taskforce to support just transitions.
What we want to see going forward:
- Abandonment of the expensive and unfair Stage 3 tax cuts. Scrapping these cuts could fund access to justice and other initiatives that would improve the lives and safety of our communities instead.
- An increase in the base rate of social security payments for unemployed people to $76 per day. We salute the great work of Economic Justice Australia, which has demonstrated again the critical importance of CLCs to improving government policy. Our advocacy is grounded in the real-life experiences of the 200,000 people we help every year.
- Increased funding for community legal centres to meet unmet legal need across Australia. Chronically underfunded centres need significant additional funding now. In its pre-budget submission, the Law Council of Australia called for a $400 million per year investment in legal assistance services, including community legal centres. With the current National Legal Assistance Partnership (NLAP) expiring in June 2025, we will need to see a clear and long-term commitment to enhancing funding for the legal assistance sector in next year’s budget. NLAP is the primary funding framework for our sector. It relies on the states and territories to allocate Commonwealth funding, and to add to Commonwealth contributions. Commonwealth funding to community legal centres under NLAP is guaranteed to June 2025. However, some state/territory governments have flagged an intention to make community legal centres participate in a procurement process for NLAP funding beyond this date. If we are to offer people and communities service continuity, these procurement processes must be concluded by the end of 2024. States and territories won’t be able to run these processes, and likely won’t commit their own funding, until the Commonwealth commits funding for the next NLAP.
- Indexation should be factored into all funding agreements going forward. Last year the government provided emergency relief to some community sector organisations to compensate for high inflation. Because we’re funded under a federal and state/territory partnership agreement, community legal centres and Aboriginal legal services were locked out of the bailout. We’re tied to the SCHADS Award and, while we welcomed last year’s 4.6% increase in salaries, and look forward to salaries rising again this year, without indexation we are going backwards at a rapid pace.
- Funding for community legal centre peaks. Peaks play an important role in providing leadership, raising awareness of issues impacting community legal centre clients, and supporting centres to share knowledge, resources and to build capacity.