Media release: Commonwealth’s failure to adequately invest in community legal centres sends sector a message to plan for winding down services

14 May 2024

Community Legal Centres Australia has 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 message to community legal centres that they should plan for winding down services. 

A report released in March 2024 found that chronic underfunding is forcing community legal centres to turn away over a thousand people a day nationally, to reduce services and close outreaches, and is contributing to burnout amongst workers. The funding shortfall is driving a workforce shortage of around 2000 staff nationally. 

The community legal sector had called on the Federal Government to include measures in this budget to prevent more services from being forced to wind down: 

  • An urgent injection of an extra $125 million for community legal centres for the 2024–25 financial year
  • A commitment to ongoing legal assistance funding beyond June 2025 in the forward estimates

Today’s budget includes an additional $44.1m for legal assistance services. Of this, $9.3m will go to community legal centres and $8.6m will go to Family Violence Prevention Legal Services.  

The $9.3m for community legal centres provides: 

  • $2.4m for indexation of 4% on some NLAP funding, but not all 
  • $6.9m to assist in reducing pay disparity between community legal centres and Legal Aid Commissions 

The budget includes nothing for legal assistance in the forward estimates, which leaves community legal centres with just 13 months’ funding security. 

Quotes attributable to Community Legal Centres Australia CEO Tim Leach 

“The government’s failure to deliver sufficient legal assistance funding or long-term funding security in today’s budget means people and communities across Australia face the very real risk that free legal services they rely on will not be available in the near future.” 

“This budget leaves many community legal centres no choice but to prepare to wind down programs and services.” 

“People come to community legal centres for help accessing basic human needs like shelter, safety from violence and financial security. With just thirteen months’ funding left, and no funding security beyond June 2025, community legal centres across the country will be forced to make impossible decisions about which outreaches to close, which areas of law to stop practising in, which programs and services to wind down, which staff to retrench and whether they can stay open at all. People and communities will pay the price.” 

“In 2019–20 the then-Coalition government gave the legal assistance sector three years’ bridging funding to provide security during the transition from one national legal assistance funding agreement to the next. This gave community legal centres some security and was the least we were expecting in tonight’s budget. We do not have that same security now: this is a level of funding insecurity that the sector has not known for a decade.” 

“We appreciate that the government has recognised our sector’s totally inadequate indexation – which has been 1.5% over the first four years of the NLAP, when inflation has run as high as 7%, and has seen community legal centres go backwards in real terms. We also appreciate that the government has acknowledged the workforce crisis gripping our sector, largely driven by low remuneration.” 

“The $9.3 million bump for community legal centres is welcome and will go some way towards keeping some lights on in some centres. However, we have been very clear over recent months that our sector needed an extra $125m for 2024-25. We have over 150 centres, so today’s boost is about $60 000 per centre. This may help some centres limp on, but that’s about it.” 

“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.” 

“The Federal Government must now make clear its commitment to legal assistance funding beyond June 2025 as soon as possible. Centres do not have twelve months to negotiate the next agreement. We cannot wait until MYEFO, and we certainly cannot wait until the May 2025 budget.  

“Our communities deserve to have confidence that the services they rely upon will be around for the long-term.”