May 2024: Federal Budget response

Last night’s budget focussed on delivering cost-of-living relief via the stage 3 tax cuts and energy bill relief for every household across the country. Disappointingly, it included very little in the way of direct support for the people doing it toughest in our communities, including people who rely on social security payments and women and children at risk of domestic and family violence. It also delivers very little for frontline community services, including community-based legal assistance services.

Here, Community Legal Centres Australia provides an overview of last night’s budget that relate to our sector’s work.

Community legal sector funding

What does the community need?

Chronic underfunding has pushed the community legal sector to breaking point. Centres are struggling to meet overwhelming demand in the community for legal help and are being forced to turn away over a thousand people a day, reduce services, and close outreaches. Frontline workers are suffering high rates of vicarious trauma and burnout. There is a workforce shortage of around 2,000 staff nationally.

This budget, Community Legal Centres Australia called on the Federal Government to deliver:

  • An urgent injection of an extra $125 million in funding for community legal centres in 2024-25 to address grossly inadequate indexation on Commonwealth legal assistance funds (which has been fixed at 1.5% since 2020), deliver pay parity for workers, and start to address high and increasing levels of unmet legal need in the community in 2024-25.
  • A clear commitment to ongoing legal assistance funding beyond June 2025 in the forward estimates to ensure funding security for community legal centres as we transition from this NLAP to the next.

This budget did not deliver on either of these measures and leaves the community legal sector facing a level of funding insecurity we have not seen in a decade.

We have described the Federal Government’s failure to make a sufficient investment in community legal centres for 2024-25, or to commit to ongoing legal assistance funding via the forward estimates, as a signal to community legal centres that they should plan for winding down services. 

Read the Community Legal Centres Australia budget-night media release here.

What did the budget provide?

$44.1 million in additional Commonwealth funding for legal assistance services in 2024-25.

This measure will deliver modest relief to community legal centres, Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (FVPLSs), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILSs), and Legal Aid Commissions (LACs).

The package includes:

  • $16.9m to deliver 4% indexation on baseline legal assistance funding delivered via the National Legal Assistance for community legal centres, ATSILSs, and LACs
  • $27.2m to deliver a pay increase for community legal sector workers at community legal centres, ATSILs and FVPLSs.

In total, community legal centres will receive $9.3m from this package:

  • $2.4m for indexation.
  • $6.9m to reduce pay disparity.

ATSILSs will receive $3.7m for indexation and $11.7m for pay parity measures. FVPLSs will receive $8.6m for pay parity (but no injection for indexation because they funded via the National Indigenous Australians’ Agency not NLAP). LACs will receive $10.8m for indexation, but no additional injection for pay parity because this measure is designed to reduce the pay gap between community legal sector workers and workers at LACs.

The $9.3 million in additional NLAP funding that will flow to community legal centres is welcome. However, it falls woefully short of the $125 million we called for to address the funding and workforce crisis facing our sector.

The $2.4 million for community legal centres to deliver 4% indexation on funding contracts for 2024-25 has been calculated on baseline NLAP funding only. The calculation does not apply to additional funding delivered to legal assistance providers in 2021, including the vulnerable women’s funding package, funding for legal assistance services for people experiencing mental health problems and for mental health workers in Domestic Violence Units and Health Justice Partnerships, and funding for sexual harassment and employment discrimination services under the Respect@Work reforms.

Similarly, the $6.9 million for community legal centres to boost wages has been calculated on baseline funding only and not additional funding delivered via schedule in 2021.

Despite the government’s focus on improving safety for women and children experiencing domestic and family violence, the exclusion of non-baseline funding schemes from these measures will have a disproportionately negative impact on specialist legal services for women.

The extra $8.6 million in funding for the sixteen Family Violence Prevention Legal Services is very good news and a welcome boost to the legal assistance sector’s most poorly funded player.

However, as the Law Council of Australia notes, overall, the package ‘is far short of what the sector requires to meet the growing demand it faces. We must not wait until next year’s Budget to adequately resource the legal assistance sector to do its vital work.’

No commitment to funding security for community legal centres beyond 30 June 2025.

In 2019, the former Coalition Government made clear its ongoing commitment to funding security for legal assistance providers beyond the end of the first National Partnership Agreement, which expired in June 2020. It did so by including funding allocations via the forward estimates for 2021-22, 2022-23, and 2024-25 even though the new National Legal Assistance Partnership Agreement had not yet been finalised. This is the least we expected from the current government.

This budget’s failure to deliver funding security for legal assistance via the forward estimates leaves the community legal sector facing a level of funding insecurity we have not seen for a decade. Centres now have just 13 months’ funding security and will be forced into making difficult decisions about winding down programs and services and retrenching experienced workers.

We are now calling on the Federal Government to make clear its commitment to legal assistance funding beyond June 2025 as soon as possible. Centres cannot wait twelve months or more until the next NLAP agreement is finalised. We cannot wait until MYEFO, and we certainly cannot wait until the May 2025 budget for the Federal Government to deliver funding security.

Media releases

Domestic and family violence

What does the community need?

Domestic and family violence is a complex problem that requires a multifaceted response. There are many elements to keeping women safe and supporting women to recover from violence. Adequately funded free holistic, trauma-informed domestic and family violence legal and related services (like family law, AVOs, financial abuse, tenancy, child protection, and social security services) are a crucial part of preventing and responding to violence.

Community legal centres employ a range of specialist workers beyond lawyers to provide people the wraparound support they need: social workers, mental health workers, financial counsellors, First Nations caseworkers, tenant advocates and more. Many centres work in partnership with women’s refuges and health services to deliver a holistic response. Some provide men’s preventative programs that work with users of violence to change violent behaviours. Aboriginal community-controlled legal assistance providers offer vital culturally safe supports to prevent and respond to domestic and family violence impacting First Nations people. Women’s Legal Services provide gender-led, specialist and integrated legal assistance services to women and have expertise in gendered-violence.

The whole community legal sector plays a critical role in safety for women and their children, both specialist women’s and domestic violence services and place-based, generalist services. Specialist community legal centres also play a vital role in supporting women to manage safety risks that we know often escalate through engagement with legal systems and processes. The community needs all community-based legal assistance providers to be adequately funded to keep doing this crucial work.

There is a critical shortage of funding for generalist and specialist community-based legal assistance providers to provide legal representation to victim-survivors. Effective domestic and family violence legal assistance work includes representation as well as information and advice, and therefore legal assistance providers’ funding must enable this.

What did the budget provide?

$925 million over five years to continue the Escaping Violence Payment for women experiencing domestic and family violence.

The Escaping Violence Payment has been in place as a pilot program since 2021, and its continuation for a further 5 years was announced following the 1 May National Cabinet meeting. The payment is intended as a one-time payment to assist eligible people leaving violence. It consists of a cash payment of up to $1,500 and goods and services worth up to $3,500 over up to a 12-week period for eligible victims-survivors.

Since National Cabinet announced the scheme’s continuation on May 1, frontline domestic violence services (including community legal services that offer family law and family violence services) have argued strongly that the Escaping Violence Payment must be complemented by significant additional investment in frontline services.

Despite this, none of what the Federal Government is referring to as a ‘$1.1 billion package’ for women’s safety in last night’s Federal Budget flows to frontline domestic and family violence services.

$16.5 million over five years from 2024-25 (and $5.1 million in 2028–29) to continue to provide legal assistance for temporary visa holders leaving a violent relationship.

$152.3 million over three years from 2023–24 to extend and expand the Escaping Violence Payment and the Temporary Visa Holders Experiencing Violence Pilot trials to 30 June 2025, and to continue to provide support services for a further 12 weeks beyond the pilot end date for active cases.

This continues an existing pilot program, the Temporary Visa Holders Experiencing Violence pilot, until 30 June 2025 which has been delivered by 7 Women’s Legal Services, Legal Aid NSW and Circle Green Community Legal WA since July 2021. It is unclear who will deliver these services from 1 July 2025 onwards, although it is likely that the providers of the pilot will continue to receive this funding.

Media releases

Other legal system measures

The Federal Budget also included the following welcome investment in the legal system, some of which will flow to community legal services.

  • $206.5 million over four years for the Administrative Review Tribunal to respond flexibly to demand.
  • $115.6 million over four years from 2024–25 (and an additional $194.2 million from 2028–29 to 2035–36) to address extremely high migration backlogs in the federal courts, including through the establishment of two migration hubs dedicated to hearing migration and protection matters.
  • $26.1 million over four years from 2024–25 for Redress Support Services and $7.2 million in 2024–25 for knowmore legal service to support survivors of institutional sexual abuse through the application process.

First Nations justice

  • $151 million over four years to Closing the Gap between First Nations and non-Indigenous communities.
  • $43.1 million over four years from 2024–25 (and $3.6 million per year ongoing) to improve justice outcomes for First Nations individuals and families.
  • $20.2 million over four years from 2024–25 (and $3.6 million per year ongoing) to the Federal Court of Australia and the National Native Title Tribunal to preserve culturally and historically significant native title records and address the backlog of native title claims and post-determination disputes.
  • $11.7 million over two years from 2024–25 to extend the First Nations Family Dispute Resolution pilot to support culturally safe family dispute resolution services.
  • $10.7 million over four years from 2024–25 to continue funding for the Justice Policy Partnership to work in partnership with all government and non-government First Nations members to reduce adult and youth incarceration rates for First Nations peoples (Targets 10 and 11 of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap).
  • $0.5 million over two years from 2024–25 to the Australian Law Reform Commission to review the future acts regime within the Native Title Act.

Media releases:

Social security

Overwhelmingly, the Federal Budget has failed to deliver to people who rely on social security payments as their main source of income. Some welcome measures, go nowhere near enough to deliver real support to people doing it the toughest in our community.

  • $1.9 billion over 5 years, from 20 September 2024, to deliver a 10% increase to Commonwealth Rent Assistance. This translates to just $9.40 per week for single people who receive the maximum rate.
  • $777 million over five years to increase the Remote Living Allowance.
  • $600 million over three years for additional Centrelink staff to assist with processing payment applications and answering phone enquiries.

Media releases: