Illawarra Legal Centre faces 'savage' cuts to government funding

HELP US: The Illawarra Legal Centre's Karyn Bartholomew (left) and Phillip Dicalfas (second from right) join Labor MPs Sharon Bird and Stephen Jones. Picture: Robert Peet
HELP US: The Illawarra Legal Centre's Karyn Bartholomew (left) and Phillip Dicalfas (second from right) join Labor MPs Sharon Bird and Stephen Jones. Picture: Robert Peet

Staff at the Illawarra’s only free legal service fear the community’s most vulnerable, who already “fall through the gaps” of other assistance, will be hit hard by planned government cuts. 

They say about 500 people a year will have to be turned away from the Illawarra Legal Centre (ILC) come July, as the Turnbull government wields the axe on funding for centres across the country.

“The sort of clients that we’ll be turning away are victims of family and domestic violence,” the ILC’s principal solicitor, Phillip Dicalfas, said.

The centre, at Warrawong, also offers assistance in areas such as general legal, welfare rights, child support and tenancy disputes.

Illawarra Labor MPs Sharon Bird (Cunningham) and Stephen Jones (Whitlam) have joined the fight; calling on Attorney-General George Brandis to reverse the “savage cuts”. The MPs say the ILC would be $166,000 worse off from July 1, thanks to a 21 per cent cut to National Partnership Agreement funding. 

“It’s stretched to the limit as it is, so a 21 per cent cut is going to be very, very significant and it will hit the most vulnerable,” Ms Bird said. 

Mr Jones said Labor would use the two months until the next federal budget to “send a clear message to Canberra that these cuts are hurting”

“The Commonwealth government provides 65 per cent of the funding, but provides 85 per cent of the work that comes through this centre; the numbers don’t add up and the cuts are going to make it worse,” he said.

ILC services differ from those offered by Legal Aid, which are subject to means and merits tests and a contributions policy, Mr Dicalfus said. “People might have their home or their other assets taken back by Legal Aid to pay for legal aid,” he said.

“Community legal centres do all our work for free; we’re absolutely vital for people that fall through the gaps of what’s not available by way of Legal Aid.” 

A spokeswoman for the Attorney-General said the government was “providing substantial funding to front-line services to help those who need it most”.

“Even in a resource-constrained environment, the Australian government is providing over $1.6 billion for legal aid, community legal centres and Indigenous legal assistance between 2015 and 2020,” she said.

The spokeswoman said federal ILC funding had risen by almost 30 per cent since 2010, from $430,871 in 2010-11 to $559,497 in 2016-17.