Community Legal Centre Funding

Members understand and appreciate the need for people to access legal aid. It is something that those of us at the coalface in this place appreciate but members in the other place never will. The law is a complicated thing. While legislators like ourselves have tried earnestly in Parliament after Parliament to make it fair and equal, one’s ability to access legal representation, and in turn to have the best chance to achieve justice, still depends heavily on one’s financial position. Unpleasant though it may be, that is a fact. It is crucial that we continue to assist community legal centres generously through the Public Purpose Fund to ensure that we make the law accessible to everyone in this State. That is really what this fund is about.

I refer specifically to the Hunter Community Legal Centre. The staff wrote to me recently to express their fears about the future. The centre oversees the Hunter Children’s Court Assistance Scheme, which helps young people who are facing the daunting prospect of a court appearance, and specifically those attending the Worimi Children’s Court. I repeat: Everyone in this State needs to be able to access justice. The Children’s Court Assistance Scheme provides that opportunity. Staff provide information and advice and link young people to other services, and a specialist youth worker attends the two Hunter children’s courts to offer assistance. The service gives young people the opportunity to feel more confident and supported before the law. It is funded through the Public Purpose Fund. If the funding disappears the Hunter Children’s Court Assistance Scheme disappears.

The Public Purpose Fund allows dozens of schemes such as this around the State to exist. Our Parliament is well furnished with lawyers. However, not everyone has a law degree and not everyone can afford a solicitor or, heaven forbid, a barrister. If that situation arises suddenly the law does not seem so equal. Lawyers often have a bad reputation in the community, but the people who work in these legal centres do not fit the stereotype. They give free legal advice, perform casework and offer expert advice on public policy. We cannot let another public body fall victim to this Government’s mean-spirited slashing.

We have talked a lot about corruption in this State in recent times. How can we on one hand seek to eliminate corruption while on the other hand remove the funding provided to bodies that ensure public accountability and equal access to the law? It is counterproductive in the extreme. There is concern in the community—and well there should be. The message is simple: Attorney General, please do not take the hatchet to the Public Purpose Fund. It does too much good for too many people in my electorate, and particularly young people. The law must be equally accessible to all.