Attorney-General's speech to National Community Legal Centres Conference 2017
Thank you very much Nassim, it’s nice to see you again. And may I begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people as the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. Might I acknowledge, in particular, Sara Kane, Chairperson of the NACLC Board of Directors; Nassim Arrage, CEO; and Amanda Alford, Director of Policy and Advocacy; Rachel StephenSmith, Minister for Community Services and Social Inclusion and Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs in the ACT Government; the Hon Mark Dreyfus QC, the Shadow Attorney-General and a former Attorney-General; Senator Rachel Siewert, my Senate colleague who represents the Australian Greens here today; other distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen.
Before I begin my scripted remarks, might I acknowledge the passing on Wednesday, of former Senator Pat Giles, whose condolence motion I moved in the Senate, yesterday. Although I never had the privilege of meeting Pat Giles, I know from reading her bio and some of her speeches and in preparing the condolence motion, that she was a tireless advocate for the under privileged and for women and was particularly close to this sector. Can I also take this opportunity to congratulate Ruth Abdullah from Kimberley Community Legal Service, for her recent award of a medal in the Order of Australia, for her service to the Indigenous community in Western Australia and thank her for her tireless work over many years. Where are you Ruth, can we see you?
I want to devote my remarks to the themes of this conference, resilience, resourcefulness and reconciliation, and tell you about some of the initiatives that the Government has made in support of the sector. But before I do, let me again say something off script.
I notice that there are rainbow flags prominently displayed in the auditorium today. The next few months will be, I believe, a time at which the long overdue recognition of the relationships of gay people will be achieved in Australia. I know that the way in which the Government has decided to progress this matter by plebiscite is controversial and is not supported by all. Nevertheless, it is the decision the Government has made and, subject to the issue being dealt with by the High Court, should there be a plebiscite as I expect there will be, there can be finality on this issue by Christmas. And I want to acknowledge and thank both the Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, and Senator Siewert, for their strong statements yesterday, calling for a ‘yes’ vote in the plebiscite. And can I say to people who don’t like the plebiscite process but nevertheless wish for the ultimate outcome, to ensure that you participate, to ensure that you actively participate, and that you vote ‘yes’. Because anyone who because of their dislike for the process were to be so foolish as to boycott it, is effectively voting ‘no’. So if you want to see marriage equality in Australia by Christmas, as I do, and as my colleagues Mark Dreyfus and Rachel Siewert do, I urge you to participate in the process, make sure your family and friends participate in the process, and vote ‘yes’.
Now having said that, can I begin by thanking the National Association of Community Legal Centres for its close engagement with the Government and with me. Very recently Nassim and Amanda came to my office and we had a meeting as I have done over the years with their predecessors, and they are in constant contact with my office and in particular with my Senior Adviser, Dr Susan Cochrane, who joins me here today and is very well known to the sector. Everyone in this room cares about the wellbeing of this sector. Everyone appreciates its importance. There are some of us, of whom I am one, and Mark Dreyfus was once one, who have to, through the political process, make decisions about resource allocation and priorities in a resource constrained environment, which means as I’ve said many times, that it would be nice if there were more resources in a budget constrained environment that could be devoted to this sector. But all of us, whether you as the practitioners or people like me and Mark Dreyfus as the political decision makers, have the best interests of this sector at heart, and wish to do as much as we are able.
Ever since the 1970s, Community Legal Centres have helped hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Australians. Your ongoing dedication is recognised and valued by the Australian Government, and by the Australian community as a whole. As experts in the field, it is vital for you to have the opportunity to gather as you have been doing these past few days and share best practice and innovative solutions with one another. Today, I want to spend most of my time talking about some recent developments and achievements both within and relevant to the legal assistance sector and to share some reflections on your conference themes; resilience, resourcefulness, and reconciliation.
As you know, governments at all levels, federal, state and municipal, play crucial roles in supporting access to justice. That is why the Federal Government has committed record funding to the legal assistance sector, providing over $1.77 billion to Legal Aid Commissions, Community Legal Centres, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services during the life of the National Partnership Agreement to 2020. Governments also work, day by day, with the sector to ensure collaborative approaches, and to support innovation, efficiency and best practice. Recent examples include key features of the National Partnership Agreement which prioritise planning and collaboration across the sector and emphasise the importance of a sound evidence base so that services are directed to where they are most needed.
One of our objectives with the National Partnership Agreement was to put behind us ad-hoc deals and funding uncertainty by having a five-year funding certainty, embraced in a single, holistic agreement. As well, we support innovation through programmes such as the Innovation Fund under the Community Legal Services Programme. Let me give you an example, the Arts Law Centre of Australia recently received funding for the ‘Digital Dilly Bag’ project, which will assist Indigenous artists to protect their intellectual and financial property rights, by providing legal information through a ‘talking contract’. This innovative technology will increase ease of access to legal information and advice in remote areas. Funding has also been provided through the Fund to install videoc onferencing facilities in the Hobart and Launceston offices of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community Legal Service.
The Turnbull Government’s support for the legal assistance sector particularly recognises the valuable contribution that you, the Community Legal Centres, make in addressing the scourge of family violence. As you know, this is area we have made a particular priority, as we ought to have done. In April this year, together with the Minister for Women, my colleague Senator Michaelia Cash, and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion, I was able to announce that the Government is providing a further, that is additional, $39 million over the next three years to Community Legal Centres. On 28 June, with the agreement of the Prime Minister and first ministers, a variation to the National Partnership Agreement to include this funding came into effect so that it now becomes part of the core funding of the National Partnership Agreement. That is a first. I commend you on your vigorous advocacy for more funding to be provided to CLCs to help those affected by family violence. That vigorous advocacy to Government, assisted my vigorous advocacy within Government to ensure the sector was better provided for. I also want to acknowledge the states and territories on the constructive work that they did with the Commonwealth to ensure that the first payment of the further funding was delivered to states and territories at the earliest opportunity, on 7 July.
Let me address for a moment, some additional federal Government funding initiatives. In the 2017-18 Budget, measures to build on the Coalition’s existing investment of $45 million for front-line legal assistance and family law services as part of the $100 million Women’s Safety Package and the $30 million towards the Third Action Plan ofthe National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022, were announced. This plan is the halfway point of the national plan and draws upon the need to address identified service gaps to support vulnerable Australians addressing and experiencing family violence. This Government has implemented multiple initiatives under the Third Action Plan. I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of those initiatives today. Perhaps you are aware of them, there may be some of which you are not.
As part of the $30 million Third Action Plan funding, $6.2 million was allocated towards piloting enhanced models of legallyassisted and culturally appropriate dispute resolution services over a three year period from 2016-17 to 2018-19.
I am delighted to be able to announce today that, as a result of this allocation, new family dispute resolution services are being piloted at eight locations across the country; at Tamworth and Bankstown in New South Wales; at Sunshine and Broadmeadows in Victoria; in Toowoomba and at Upper Mt Gravatt in Queensland; as well as at localities in Perth, and in Darwin. These new facilities will complement mediation with legal, therapeutic and culturally sensitive support. Services will be tailored to respond to the needs of each particular family. The pilots will trial enhanced models to assist separating or separated families from Indigenous or culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, who are experiencing family violence, to resolve their family law disputes without going to court.
The existing Family Relationship Centres will partner with specialists such as interpreters and lawyers, migrant and Indigenous-specific service providers. This model reflects the Turnbull Government’s recognition of the benefits of collaborative service delivery models providing a full range of legal and nonlegal services to assist people with the legal and social issues they are facing. I think for too long, we have failed sufficiently to grasp the opportunities of a full spectrum, cross professional approach, to the needs of vulnerable people. These pilot programs will ensure that we correct that omission in our understanding of the best way to address the issue, because we recognise that legal problems do not emerge or survive in isolation from other difficulties, and that solutions cannot be provided by lawyers in isolation from other professionals and clinicians. So this comprehensive service delivery model is exemplified by the domestic violence unit pilots funded under the Women’s Safety Package, which are intended to assist some of the most vulnerable women and children in our community. I am pleased to be able to tell you that, between January of last year and March of this year, those units have assisted over 2000 new clients with over 5000 legal and nonlegal services. The domestic violence unit services include advice, information and representation, tailored safety planning, risk assessments, case management, practical assistance and counselling. Early service data, together with anecdotal evidence indicates that the initial domestic violence unit pilots are succeeding in reaching vulnerable clients and providing essential, intensive services to women in need. The Turnbull Government was also pleased to secure a further $3.4 million in the 2017-18 Budget to expand this pilot over the next two years.With this increased funding, up to six new domestic violence units will be established early next year in priority locations,which will be identified in consultation with the states and territories and other stakeholders, taking into account evidence of legal need already developed by jurisdictions as part of a sector-wide collaborative service planning process.
Finally, I announce today that the Government is providing an additional $3.67 million in additional funding over the next two years for the 65 Commonwealth-funded Children’s Contact Services.
Turning to this year’s conference theme of resourcefulness, I’d like to highlight some particularly resourceful and effective partnerships that we have seen since the introduction of the current National Partnership Agreement two years ago. I have already touched on the introduction of collaborative services planning in the National Partnership Agreement, which was one of the key reforms ushered in by that agreement. But understanding other legal assistance service providers can help to reduce duplication and lead to more effective partnerships, so we must do this better. Over time, a more collaborative approach will ensure that services are best targeted to meet the needs of individual clients and to respond to areas of greatest need. I encourage you to continue participating in these service planning conversations, so that the participants in the sector can work better together and efforts can be more effectively directed, informed by sectorwide evidence.
Let me say a word about the Family Advocacy and Support Service.As part of the Third Action Plan funding, the Government is also providing $18.5 million to establishFamily Advocacy and Support Services. Services have now commenced in all jurisdictions within the family law courts. In some jurisdictions, partnerships between Legal Aid Commissions and Community Legal Centres have been developed to ensure the service can be accessed by both parties to a dispute. Let me give you an example of the collaboration between Caxton Legal Centre and Legal Aid Queensland as an example of how well this can be done. Caxton has built on its existing duty lawyer and social work services to deliver integrated legal and social support at the Family Law Court in Brisbane. I am delighted that the early feedback from the legal assistance sector on these services has been so positive and I thank you for that feedback. The services are providing invaluable assistance to people affected by family violence who are self-represented. Significantly, judges in the family law system arereferring more cases to both duty lawyers and to social workers. This is an excellent illustration of different elements of the court system working together to assist vulnerable litigants, hand in hand with the profession. Some of you here today would be aware that the Commonwealth is working closely with Legal Aid Commissions to develop an evaluation framework to ensure that we have a solid evidencebase for measuring the benefits of the service model. So I encourage you to share your insights and experience so as to inform that evaluation.
We’re all aware that technology is playing an ever-increasing part in every walk of life, including legal services delivery and the work of the courts. Engaging with new technologies to improve service delivery is another opportunity for resourcefulness within the legal assistance sector. Already, we have seen tremendous advancements in video conferencing facilities enabling more services to reach regional and remote areas, and in online legal chat services enabling advice and information services to be delivered more widely and conveniently and less expensively. The Attorney-General’s Department is working with the South Australian Legal Services Commission to investigate options for an online dispute resolution system for couples separating or divorcing in Australia. We are also looking to the private sector for innovative service delivery models. By way of example, eBay and PayPal resolve over 60 million disputes online every year and we are now examining whether separated couples in Australia could benefit from an interactive dispute resolution program similar to those used overseas, including in Canada and the Netherlands. Of course, an online model is not right for everybody. In contentious matters, it will not be suitable. It will be critical to ensure that separating couples who are not suitable for that online process, such as where there is a history of violence, are screened out. Work in assessing the viability of this idea, and identifying the way forward in Australia, will occur over the next year.
Let me say a word about another of your conference themes, reconciliation.I want to acknowledge the work of the NACLC in developing its second Reconciliation Action Plan 20172019.Collaboration, respect and cultural awareness are at the heart of NACLC’s Reconciliation Plan. I applaud the contribution of Community Legal Centres to access to justice for Indigenous Australians, and I might say, not merely the community legal sector, but the entire legal profession. It was at the encouragement and inspiration of the Australian Bar Association that last year I referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission, a new reference on Indigenous incarceration rates, which is now being undertaken by the ALRC. Community Legal Centres complement the extensive work of these specialist Indigenous services to deliver culturally appropriate legal assistance. The 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum calls on all of us to reflect upon the role that the legal assistance sector has played in closing the gap, while recognising that clearly, a lot more work needs to be done.
This is an ongoing priority for all Australians.
Finally, to the theme of Resilience. There will always be challenges as part of your role, particularly when assisting disadvantaged clients who may be highly distressed and dealing with confronting, threatening, intimidating, or difficult circumstances. Those who walk through your door, every day, are people in need, and as you know better than I do, people in distress, and you are the members of our society who help those people through their hours of greatest need. So resilience is a very appropriate theme for this conference because as you know better than I do, you need to show that resilience, particularly that emotional resilience, as part of your everyday work.
Let me conclude by once again thanking you for your commitment and professionalism. We all come to this conference from a background as lawyers, dedicated to an ethic of professional and community service. But the community service you perform for distressed people, the most vulnerable people in our community, is of particular importance. It is of unique social importance. The Government, governments of both persuasions and at all levels, support you where we can. We will continue to support you and in supporting you, we pay tribute to and respect to the work that you do.
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