First Nations legal service to shut down after losing federal funding

Peak body for Indigenous legal services denied funding under the Indigenous advancement strategy as $680m in grants handed out

Helen Davidson The Guardian 5 March 2015

The peak body for Indigenous legal services will shut its doors after being denied a portion of federal government funding under the Indigenous advancement strategy (IAS) grants scheme.

More than $680m in funding grants have been awarded to 964 organisations under the scheme, which consolidates Indigenous programs and policies into five broad areas, the Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, announced on Wednesday.

"The latest Closing the Gap report delivered last month is both a lesson in how bad things have become and reinforce the need for a new approach," Scullion said in a statement.

"For the first time in decades we have had a holistic look at the myriad of services and projects being funded to ensure future funding is geared towards achieving change on the ground that improves the lives of individuals and communities."

Scullion said organisations were being informed of the outcomes.

Guardian Australia has spoken with numerous organisations, some of which said they did not know if or how much of a grant they had been given, or if funding would continue beyond the next 12 months.

Frank Hytten, CEO of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (Snaicc), the peak body for Aboriginal children in Australia, told Guardian Australia his organisation had applied for three years of funding for 10 programs across three of the policy areas. Snaicc had received an offer but only for 18 months and said it was not clear yet which programs were included.

Other organisations which missed out entirely said they would have to close offices and wind up long-running frontline services.

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (Natsils) will shut down in June after it found out its application for an IAS grant was unsuccessful.

Natsils is the peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, and had provided "cohesive and co-ordinated responses" to requests for submissions to numerous Senate and committee inquiries including into domestic violence, access to justice and discrimination, Natsils chair, Shane Duffy, told Guardian Australia.

The organisation ran on $295,000 in annual funding. "We're not talking about millions or billions," Duffy said.

"I'd suggest it was one of the leanest national bodies you've ever seen, providing very timely evidence-based responses."

Duffy said by forcing the closure of Natsils, Scullion had "really missed an opportunity to have first-hand expertise provided to his department."

Jeremy Styles, chief legal officer at the New South Wales Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS), told Guardian Australia Natsils was "a critical part of coordinated service delivery across the country".

"It provides a coordinated contact for government between the services in different states and territories," he said, "and a forum for services to improve the quality of their work by consulting about work that's being done and how different services provide services in their areas."

The NSW ALS had its two applications rejected by the IAS scheme, including one for its existing custody notification service, which provides 24-hour legal advice and welfare support for Aboriginal people arrested in NSW.

The service is the only one of its kind in the country and requires police to call a hotline when they arrest an Indigenous person. The service was a recommendation of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

"We're deeply disappointed that the IAS grants didn't cover that part of our business," Styles said. "The problem for us is that these IAS grants are in the context of much, much deeper cuts that are crystallising on 1 July. The custody notification service is on the table as something we may not be able to fund after 1 July.

"Generally we've got a gross amount of $3m cuts which come in on 1 July out of a budget of a bit over $18m. "

The Katherine Women's Information and Legal Service (Kwils) was granted $107,000 funding for the Indigenous women's outreach program which has assisted women living in remote communities for the last 13 years. The funding is for 12 months after which Kwils will need to reapply.

Sandra Nelson, Kwils' executive officer, told Guardian Australia the amount was the same it currently receives to run the service, and it had applied for a further $150,000 for a pilot traineeship program to train Indigenous women as paralegals to work in remote communities, but it was knocked back.

However the biggest shock was the withdrawal of funding for Kwils's supplementary legal service (SLA). The $207,000 a year – about 50% of Kwils' budget – from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which paid for Kwils's rent, administration, and salaries for two staff.

Nelson claims the department told her the SLA was defunded because it was not included in Kwils's application, but she told Guardian Australia there was no way to apply for it under the scheme's parameters because the SLA was a service for all women, and was not Indigenous-specific.

"Nowhere in the IAS application was it mentioned that we would need to include in our application request for funds to continue SLA," she said.

Nelson said she was given no indication the fate of other Kwils services was tied up with the Indigenous-specific funding.

The cut means Kwils will have to sack two of its four staff and find cheaper office space, and its work in the region will be diminished.

"It means that we will not be able to travel to remote communities to provide outreach legal services for women, which is sorely needed," Nelson said.

"It means that while the federal government preaches and promotes their domestic violence strategy and Indigenous advancement strategy – what they have done is reduced the capability of an organisation that delivers services that support those two strategies."

Funding of about $140,000 from the Attorney General's Department, which covers the women's information service and family violence legal service, was unaffected.

Scullion's office did not provide answers to questions about Kwils.

In Wednesday's statement Scullion said his department would speak to unsuccessful organisations "about other potential opportunities to deliver services that improve the lives of First Australians".

It was also announced on Thursday that 112 community-controlled Aboriginal health organisations would have their funding extended by the federal health department for three years, at a cost of $1.4bn.

Indigenous legal services peak body slams justice targets ‘backflip'

Patricia Karvelas The Australian 20 November 2014

The national peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services NATSILS is angry at the Abbott government for “back flipping” on a pledge to consider ntroducing justice targets as part of the Closing the Gap policy agenda, a move which NATSILS along with many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and organisations have long called for.

It comes after this week's Productivity Commission Overcoming indigenous Disadvantage report revealed a shocking increase of nearly 60 per cent in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rates over the last decade.

NATSILS Chairperson, Shane Duffy, said that confirmation from the Minister for indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, during question time in the Senate on Wednesday that the government would not be progressing with introducing a justice target, despite publicly supporting such in the lead up to the 2013 election, was a troubling development.

“The over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this country is a crisis at tipping point and much more needs to be done by all Australian governments to address the disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, children and men in Australian prisons,” Mr Duffy said.

“One of the glaring omissions in the original Closing the Gap targets developed in 2008 was that of over-imprisonment, and the Commonwealth Government needs to accept that without tackling incarceration rates, the ability of all Australian government's to achieve the other existing targets is in serious jeopardy.”

Mr Duffy said that given the complex and multiple issues at play which sit across multiple jurisdictions, including factors of socio-economic disadvantage, the impact of over-policing, stricter approaches to bail, mandatory sentencing and a lack of non-custodial sentencing options, particularly in regional and remote areas, it is critical that a bipartisan approach at both the Commonwealth and State and Territory level is achieved.

“Reducing incarceration rates is going to take commitment, action and coordination from all Australian governments, and the Commonwealth Government and the Minister for indigenous Affairs in particular, need to stand up and show some leadership on this issue,” Mr Duffy said.

“Prior to last year's election, when we saw commitment from both major parties to introduce justice targets we thought we were starting to see some real leadership on this issue but it is disappointing that this has now disappeared into the wind”.

Mr Duffy said that the development of Closing the Gap justice targets was not just about throwing more money at the issue, as the Minister had described it, but was rather about getting the policy settings right to affect real change and to make sure resources in the justice space are used most effectively.

“The high cost of incarceration combined with the fact that prisons actually offer little in terms of effective rehabilitation, means that addressing incarceration rates should be an economic priority for the Government and its budget bottom line,” Mr Duffy said.

“It is costing Australian taxpayers more than $795 million per annum just to maintain the current level of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander over-imprisonment, so to reiterate the sentiments of the Minister in recent days, we shouldn't just keep throwing money down the drain.”