Independent review calls for more investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services

Dr Warren Mundy also recommended the incorporation of Closing the Gap commitments

Independent review calls for more investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services

An independent review commissioned by the government has called for greater investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.

Dr Warren Mundy was tasked with reviewing Commonwealth funding for legal assistance, which includes the National Legal Assistance Partnership (NLAP), the intergovernmental agreement governing funding to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Legal Aid Commissions, and Community Legal Centres. He recommended that governments significantly bolster their investments in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services in line with increased investment in the sector.

He also indicated that government funding arrangements need to generate improved justice outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and incorporate Closing the Gap commitments.

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National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) chair Karly Warner described Mundy’s findings as “vindication”.

“NATSILS will be reviewing the report in detail, but it’s immediately clear this is a vindication of what we’ve been saying all along. Our government resourcing is totally inadequate and doesn’t come close to meeting the legal needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which is an affront to justice and an obstacle to Closing the Gap”, Warner said.

NATSILS outlined the following key points from Mundy’s report:

  • current funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and Family Violence Prevention Legal Services is inadequate to meet the legal needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • the current funding framework has not delivered on Closing the Gap, and governments (including state and territory governments) need to be held accountable to progressing outcomes
  • under the NLAP funding framework, the legal needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the highest among all priority groups

The findings were publicised nearly three months after the review's submission to the government. They come ahead of negotiations on the next legal assistance sector funding agreement set to be implemented in 2025, NATSILS said.

“This is a critical test of Australian governments’ genuineness in their Closing the Gap commitments. They have agreed to set out a future where decisions impacting the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are made in full partnership with our people”, Warner said. ““Introducing a fair and needs-based funding model for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services is required to ensure all of our people have access to culturally safe legal assistance. This is a crucial step towards Closing the Gap in adult and child incarceration, child removals, family violence, and deaths in custody”.

Nonetheless, the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department indicated that governments would not be responding to the report, a move that NATSILS called “disappointing in light of calls for greater accountability, including in the Productivity Commission’s recent review of Closing the Gap”. Thus, NATSILS has urged all governments to incorporate Mundy’s recommendations in collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, ensuring the availability of adequately funded legal assistance services for Indigenous communities.

NATSILS explained that from the outset, planning and negotiations must align with Closing the Gap principles. Moreover, an implementation roadmap must be crafted to give clarity and certainty to individuals seeking legal help for matters such as family and domestic violence, discrimination, housing, child protection, and costs of living.

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