National Legal Assistance Partnership 2020–2025

Community legal centres

Community legal centres are unique within the legal assistance sector. We are independent organisations connected within a community legal sector movement. Our independence allows us to respond quickly to our communities’ needs. Our connectedness ensures a network of services on which these communities can rely for place-based, and specialist supports. 

Holistic support, prevention and systemic advocacy have been hallmarks of our service model for over 50 years. Community legal centres employ not just lawyers but social workers, case workers, counsellors, Aboriginal community engagement workers, financial counsellors, tenant advocates, policy officers and more, and prioritise trauma-informed and culturally-safe practice.

In 2022-23 community legal centres assisted 179 000 people nationally 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, hospitals and on the streets. 

About the NLAP

The NLAP is an agreement between the Commonwealth, state, and territory governments to fund legal assistance services.

The Commonwealth provides the money and decides how much should go to community legal centres, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and Legal Aid Commissions.

States and territories administer the funding: managing distribution, developing state legal assistance strategies, coordinating collaborative service planning and collecting data. The current agreement does not require states and territories to provide extra funding to legal assistance services, but some choose to.

Community legal centres get around 14% of Commonwealth NLAP funding. Most centres get Commonwealth NLAP funding. Some get money from different Commonwealth funding streams. Some get no NLAP funding. Some get state or territory money. Some fundraise from non-government sources.

The current NLAP (2020-25) has just undergone its mandatory mid-point review. Commonwealth, state, and territory Attorneys-General have the report but it has not yet been published. The community legal sector has not seen the final report, or any drafts. We have asked Attorneys-General to release the report urgently to increase the transparency of critical government decisions about the future of legal assistance services.

A Sector in Crisis

Underfunding of legal assistance is chronic and longstanding. A decade ago, the Productivity Commission recommended an immediate injection of $200 million into the legal assistance sector. More recently, the Law Council of Australia put the national funding shortfall for legal assistance services at $500 million per year. Meanwhile, several independent studies have shown that unmet legal need is high and growing.

Now, a funding crisis 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 people away, reduce services and close outreaches. Frontline workers are suffering high rates of vicarious trauma and burnout, and high staff turnover is contributing to a national workforce crisis.

A sector in crisis, published March 2024, draws on data from a national survey of 117 community legal centres from all states and territories, consultation meetings engaging over 130 community legal workers in 2023 and case studies gathered directly from centres.

Findings include:

  • Overwhelmingly, respondents identified lack of funding (56%), staff recruitment (45.7%), and increased client demand (44.7%) as the top three challenges for our sector in 2022-23.
  • Centres were forced to turn away over 368 000 people seeking help in 2022-23, averaging a thousand people per day.
  • Nine out of ten centres experienced an increase in demand on their services in 2022-23 as compared to the previous year. None reported a reduction in demand.
  • Regional and remote communities are uniquely impacted by our sector’s crisis. Rates of socio-economic disadvantage and the cost of delivering services are both higher in these communities, so the gap between community need and centres’ capacity to respond is greater.
  • The community legal sector needs 2000 extra full-time workers to meet demand. But a workforce crisis means centres struggle to recruit and retain the staff they need. Overworked staff are burnt out and demoralised in the face of overwhelming demand. 57% of centres in remote communities and 35% in metro and regional communities reported higher resignation rates in 2022-23 than the previous year.
  • Community legal sector workers earn 10-35% less than public sector counterparts. Low wages were the main driver of resignations for 63% of centres, and the main barrier to attracting and retaining staff for 80%. Fewer workers mean reduced capacity to deliver services. This feeds into a chronic cycle of increased demand, more people turned away, mounting unmet need and constant staff turnover.

Solutions

People and communities need governments to invest in the community legal centres they rely on. The Commonwealth Government has a responsibility to provide community legal centres with consistent, guaranteed baseline funding. The May 2024-25 federal budget must deliver:

  1. An urgent injection of at least $125 million in funding for community legal centres in 2024-25, to address the national workforce crisis, compensate centres for inadequate indexation, provide targeted additional funding for services in regional, rural, remote and very remote areas, and to enable the sector to start addressing high and increasing levels of unmet legal need in the community.
  2. A clear commitment from the Commonwealth to ongoing NLAP funding for all legal assistance providers beyond June 2025 in the forward estimates. Delays will push a community legal sector already in crisis over the edge, and it will be the people and communities most in need who will suffer the consequences.

Our sector’s structure, as a network of independent centres that enter individual funding contracts with governments, puts our sector at increased risk of service disruptions as we move from one NLAP to the next. Some state and territory governments use competitive tenders to distribute NLAP funding. These can take six months or more to complete. If the Commonwealth Government does not make a commitment to ongoing NLAP funding in its May 2024 budget, by May 2025 centres will have barely a month’s funding left.

Centres will have had no choice but to shed staff and close programs long before then. Centres in jurisdictions proposing tenders for NLAP funding will face a further six to twelve months of funding insecurity. If state and territory governments wait for the Commonwealth’s announcement before determining their own contribution to legal assistance funding, and to allocate both Commonwealth and state and territory funding to community legal centres via a single tender process, centres will be in an even worse position.

People and communities experiencing disadvantage deserve to feel certain the holistic, trauma-informed services they rely on will be accessible where and when they need them – now, and into the future. The Commonwealth Government has a responsibility to invest in a society where access to legal advice and the justice system is based on need and not based on the size of your bank balance.