It is my pleasure to present my second report as Chairperson of Community Legal Centres NSW (CLCNSW). It is hard to believe that yet another year has already gone. And it has certainly been a very challenging one, with the community legal centre (CLC) sector experiencing some highs and lows.
I would like to acknowledge and pay respects to the Traditional Owners and the Elders of the land where CLCNSW is located, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and further acknowledge that all CLCs are located on the traditional lands of different Aboriginal nations across NSW.
The last 12 months have been a period of great funding uncertainty for CLCs in NSW and across Australia. Firstly, the Commonwealth Government announced significant cuts to the funding of CLCs and then these cuts were partially reversed. However the new five-year National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services (NPA) between State/Territory governments and the Commonwealth government that commenced on 1 July 2015 now enshrines a $2.889M cut to CLCs in NSW in 2017/18. This is addition to the cuts already experienced by the Environmental Defenders Office in NSW. The NPA also heralds a new method for the funding of CLCs across Australia, by delegating funding decisions to the State and Territory governments and signals a diminishing role for the Commonwealth in the delivery of legal assistance in NSW.
Sadly, the cuts enshrined in the NPA came in the wake of the Productivity Commission report on access to justice inquiry released in December 2014, which lauded the work of community legal centres and recommended additional funding for legal assistance services. Further, the Productivity Commission notes widespread concerns that Australia’s civil justice system is “too slow, too expensive and too adversarial”. It further notes that while there is much focus on the courts, much is done in their shadow, with parties resolving their disputes privately. Community legal education, legal information (including self-help kits) and minor advice help ensure that parties are better equipped to resolve their disputes. Among a wide range of recommendations, the Productivity Commission recommended an injection of $200 million to legal assistance services including community legal centres, Aboriginal legal services and legal aid. We note, with some disappointment, that the Commonwealth Government is yet to respond to the report and the NPA funding allocations do not address the key funding issues the report raised.
As in previous years, 2014/15 has presented a range of challenges and opportunities for our member CLCs. The importance of a strong peak organisation to support the member CLCs cannot be stated enough and I thank staff for their efforts supporting, coordinating and leading the sector through their work for CLCNSW. Detailed reports and highlights for the State Office and its committees and networks are found elsewhere in the annual report.
In looking ahead to 2015/16, there is, once again, no doubt that there are going to be many significant challenges, the largest of which is the expected funding ‘cliff’ in 2017/18, where Commonwealth funding for NSW CLCs is scheduled to drop by 25%. In order to best meet this and other challenges, we have spent some time this year at the State Office reviewing our staffing structure to ensure we are in a very strong position to support our member CLCs in the changing funding and policy environment.
With the 2012–2015 CLCNSW Strategic Plan drawing to a close, I want to recognise the work that has been done by the sector to promote Community Legal Centres, raise awareness of access
to justice issues, build the organisational capacity of Community Legal Centres in NSW and lead and advocate for social justice. The Board has developed a new strategic plan that sets a clear direction for CLCNSW for the next three years. In particular, it incorporates ideas and suggestions from our member CLCs on what they want to see CLCNSW working on in the coming three years. There is no doubt in our minds that the next few years will present significant challenges for the CLC sector. We are facing diminishing funding from government along with policy changes. We are also seeing marked differences in the way people access and use information and services, such as through technology, including social media. These, and other challenges, represent a call to action for our sector to respond and change to ensure that we continue to deliver what our communities need if they are to have true access to justice.
These challenges aside, we intend to pause for a moment in November 2015 and celebrate the 40th anniversary of the beginnings of the CLC movement in NSW. It is important to reflect on the time when a small and committed group of legal and non- legal professionals got together in a hall in Redfern in June 1975 to discuss ways of ensuring that all in the community had access to justice. Our 40th anniversary celebrations will be an opportunity to not only thank those pioneers of our sector, but also to reflect on the vast array of achievements by CLCs since that time. I look forward to this important milestone.
Funding and support
On behalf of the Board, I would like to thank the following individuals and organisations for their support during the year:
- The Hon. Gabrielle Upton MP, NSW Attorney General
- The Hon. Brad Hazzard MP, former NSW Attorney General.
- The Hon. Senator George Brandis QC, Federal Attorney- General.
- Mr Andrew Cappie-Wood, Secretary, NSW Department of Justice.
- Mr Paul McKnight and Mr Stephen Bray, NSW Department of Justice.
- Mr John McKenzie, NSW Legal Services Commissioner (formerly Chief Legal Officer of the ALS NSW/ACT) and Legal Aid Board member.
- Mr Bill Grant OAM, CEO of Legal Aid NSW.
- Ms Bronwyn McCutcheon, CLC Funding Program Manager,
- Legal Aid NSW, and her team of Mr Benjamin Dougall, Mr Sean McCarthy and Ms Tanya Finneran.
- Staff at Legal Aid NSW; in particular Richard Funston, Monique Hitter, Kylie Beckhouse, Annmarie Lumsden, Scott Hawkins, Sue Scott, Jane Cipants, Jane Pritchard, Michelle Jones and Jenny Lovric.
- The Trustees and Administrator of the NSW Public Purpose Fund.
- Mr Geoff Mulherin, Ms Jane Kenny, and the staff at the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW.
- Mr Michael Smith, National Convenor, Ms Julia Hall, CEO, Polly Porteous, acting CEO, and the staff of the National Association of CLCs.
- Ms Janet Wagstaff and all the staff at LawAccess NSW.
My thanks also to my fellow Board members for their support and dedication to the work of CLCNSW over the past 12 months. I also acknowledge the work of the convenors and co-convenors of the CLCNSW networks and thank them for their commitment and dedication. If not for them, the sector would not be as informed and united as it is on the various issues that we work on.
Finally, I would like to thank the management committees, staff and volunteers of CLCs in NSW for their ongoing commitment in delivering access to justice and without whom, many disadvantaged people and communities would not get the legal help they need.
CLCNSW remains committed to working with government, our funding managers, other legal assistance providers and our member CLCs to ensure that our clients continue to receive access to high quality free legal services.