Funding cuts: end of free legal service?

Fitzroy Legal Service is situated in the Fitzroy Town Hall and open monday to friday. (Picture: Sara Bouter)

Fitzroy Legal Service might need to close its doors on the free legal friday due to uncertainty about Commonwealth funding.

The government planned to slash the budget on community legal centres by $35 million under new funding arrangements due to start on the first of July this year.

After a huge lobby from community legal centres, the private profession and prominent names as Rosie Batty, federal government announced to restore the funding in the May budget. However community legal centres still haven’t heard whether they will receive the new funding and where they can use it for.

“It’s frustrating,” says Executive Officer of Fitzroy Legal Service Claudia Fatone. “For us, the announcement doesn’t mean anything at this stage.”

City of Yarras mayor Amanda Stone calls the way government deals with the community legal sector “fairly poor.” The Council sent letters to federal government in order to support the legal service, but hasn’t received any reaction so far.

Because of the uncertainty the legal service continued running its “Save Our Friday” campaign even after the announcement. They still need to raise about $3000 in the last weeks and not hitting the $10.000 by the 30th of June will mean not receiving anything.

If Fitzroy Legal Service loses the funding, it won’t be able to continue its service the way it is. Last year it provided free legal advice to 3.625 people in all different kind of cases. The majority of its clients has experienced some sort of disadvantage: financially, mental health or drugs/alcohol issues, or people experiencing homelessness. The night service is often their last hope.

Both Ms. Fatone and Ms. Stone stress having community legal centres operating efficiently and on a certain level is of major importance for society. Legal representation and support is a preventive measure for a lot of people, Ms. Stone says. It prevents people from getting in more trouble and ultimately providing a greater burden on society. “It’s in everyone’s interest, even if we can’t see it, to make sure people have support to prevent things getting worse.”

Even when the funding comes through, for a lot of community legal centres the damage has already been done, Ms. Fatone says. “Community legal centres already lost good talent because they thought they were gonna lose the funding. People who felt they were not gonna have a job from the 30th of June started looking elsewhere.”

Over the last 10 years local governments has been asked to pick up a lot of fundings dropped by the federal government, but City of Yarra is at a point where they simply don’t have the income to keep doing that. At the same time, Fitzroy Legal Service can’t keep operating at the same level with less resources.

“It’s always a last resort to cut something,” says Claudia Fatone. “We will fight hard and if the funding doesn’t come through, we will absolutely think of any way in which we can maintain the night service before making the decision to cut it.”

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