Media release: Community legal centres in crisis — 1000 people turned away daily as demand surges

25 March 2024

Today, Community Legal Centres Australia launched a report at Australian Parliament House, Canberra, detailing new data on the state of the community legal sector nationally. The report, A sector in crisis, comes amidst a national community legal centre workforce crisis, overwhelming demand for legal assistance services, and calls from the sector for the Commonwealth Government to commit to properly fund legal assistance in the May 2024 federal budget. 

Nationally, community legal centres assisted hundreds of thousands of people across the country in 2022-23 to manage everyday legal problems with their housing, employment, health, finances, and personal safety, and to better understand and exercise their legal rights. Community legal centres help to keep people safe and prevent them from ending up in jails and hospitals, and on the streets.   

Chronic underfunding has pushed community legal centres to breaking point. Centres are struggling to meet overwhelming demand in the community for legal help and are being forced to turn hundreds of thousands of people away, reduce services and close outreaches. Frontline workers are suffering high rates of vicarious trauma and burnout, and high staff turnover is fuelling a national workforce crisis.  

A sector in crisis draws upon data from a national survey of 117 community legal centres from all states and territories, consultations with over 130 community legal workers across the country, and case studies gathered directly from centres.  

The report uncovers some especially grim statistics on the impact of the community legal sector funding crisis for people and communities across the country. 

  • Centres were forced to turn away 368,000 people seeking help in 2022-23, averaging a thousand people per day. 
  • Nine out of ten centres experienced an increase in demand for their services in 2022-23 as compared to the previous year. None reported a reduction in demand. 
  • Based on unmet need and current staffing levels, the community legal sector urgently needs to recruit 2,000 extra workers if it is to meet the community’s need for support. 

Quotes attributable to Gerard Brody, Chairperson of Community Legal Centres Australia

“Centres have been telling us they’re at breaking point for some time, but the findings of this report show the crisis is even worse than we had thought. 

People nationwide feel the crisis firsthand when they seek support from their local or specialist community legal centre, only to hear, ‘Sorry, we can’t help.’ This report confirms this heart-wrenching reality, occurring at least a thousand times daily. 

“Local communities also feel this crisis when their nearest community legal centre closes its local outreach or is forced to stop practising particular areas of law because they don’t have the staff. This report tells us that centres need on average an extra 12 full-time workers to meet demand from their communities – that’s 2,000 extra community legal sector workers nationally. 

“Three-quarters of community legal centres struggle with recruitment, retention, or staff wellbeing. The primary driver behind resignations and recruitment hurdles is remuneration. The significant pay gap, ranging from 10% to 35% less than public sector counterparts, underscores this issue. 

“The findings from ‘A Sector in Crisis’ should prompt immediate action from the Commonwealth Government. It’s their duty to ensure people and communities don’t bear the brunt of this funding crisis. In the upcoming May budget, the Commonwealth has a chance to invest in an Australia where justice isn’t determined by your bank balance.” 

Joanna Collins, CEO of the Pilbara Community Legal Service, spoke at the report launch about the people and communities that her centre works every day to support. She said, “The Pilbara is 506,000 square kilometers, with a population of approximately 62,000, of which 14% are Aboriginal. There is significant socioeconomic disadvantage, a lack of affordable housing and high rates of family violence, which drive high demand for legal assistance. 

“Mary is an Aboriginal woman who was referred to Pilbara Community Legal Service by the police following an extreme domestic violence incident. Mary was in her early 20s, was pregnant and had two children under five. Mary had a history of significant abuse at the hands of her partner and had tried to leave on several occasions, but she had nowhere to go. Child protection had become involved, and Mary was facing the prospect of her children being placed into care. 

“A Pilbara Community Legal Service lawyer helped Mary get a Violence Restraining Order and represented her in Care and Protection proceedings. Our Domestic Violence Advocate linked Mary up with housing support and helped her get on a priority housing waitlist, resulting in Mary getting a home. We coordinated other supports for Mary, with the Aboriginal medical service supporting her with the upcoming birth. With the Violence Restraining Order in place and Mary providing a safe home for her children, Child Protection closed the case. Mary later returned to the centre when she had a tenancy issue and continues to be supported by Pilbara Community Legal Service.  

“Community legal centres in the regions are trusted by the community, and our integrated case management ensures the people we help experience long-lasting changes to their lives. Unfortunately, Mary’s case is not isolated. More people reach out to us for help than we can support because of our limited funding, so many in the community go without the help they need. Community legal centres need proper resourcing so that we can keep providing free legal and social services to people experiencing disadvantage, and this must be a government priority.”