Legal centres in crisis turn away thousands

Community legal centres are turning away as many as 150,000 people per year according to census results released yesterday.

A census by the National Association of Community Legal Centres has found that over 150,000 people were turned away from community legal centres last financial year.

NACLC chair Michael Smith said that community centres are facing an increased demand at the same time that they are facing funding cuts.  In his view, it is likely that the number of people turned away is actually significantly higher, with only 75 percent of member centres able to provide data.

“As we get better at recording these figures, the results are actually staggering.  We are really concerned about how many people are being turned away,” Smith said. 

“There are real crisis issues around legal help and certainly violence is a huge issue for us so there’s lots of work in that area,” he said.  “It is extremely concerning that so many people who can’t otherwise access the legal system are being turned away.”

Smith said early intervention in legal problems is important to solving them fully, particularly for clients from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“The difficulty is, it’s not until you meet with somebody in the office and have a conversation [that] you can explore what else is going on.”

While many of the people turned away from the legal centres are disadvantaged and can’t afford a private lawyer, Smith said that community legal centres are also becoming more known in the community, and the socio-economic groups utilising them is widening.

Following funding cuts, Smith said centres are yet to find an alternative solution.

“At the end of the day, the volunteers need staff to support them and to screen them and help to set up the work,” he said.  “We are trying to find creative solutions; we are trying to find alternative funding solutions.”

The census follows the announcement earlier this year that legal centres will face government funding cuts and that many centres may face closure.  Redfern Legal Centre is among the community legal centres and like a number of its counterparts, has embarked on a fundraising campaign to avoid staff reductions.

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